Monday, October 29, 2018

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10 Things That Don't Make You an Activist (And 5 That Do)

Pictured: People Sharing Political Meme's on Facebook
How does one spend 3 hours “doing” something every day, but never accomplish anything? See if this sounds like someone you know, or maybe even yourself that I’m describing.

I’m writing about a person that despite spending 2 or more hours every day thinking and talking about politics, has never, once, actively participated in the political process. They passively participated like a fan of a sports team. At family gatherings they’ll act like they’re the foremost expert on a topic, but have they ever put in a single hour of volunteer work? Their Facebook and Twitter feeds are full of political memes and their comments filled with hours of arguments, but have they ever stuffed envelopes or canvassed a neighborhood?

I don’t know know why people do this. Is it that they don’t care because they are just satisfying their ego to feel like they’ve done something? Or are they genuinely unaware of how to make a difference If you’re one of the latter people, this article is for you. If you’re in it just to placate your ego, stop it!
The first 10 items is kind of a test to see if you, or someone you know, have a problem. If you (or someone you know) spend more than 10 hours a week doing the following, but never anything else, then this article is for you. The last 5 items are your prescription of how to make a difference and feel good doing it.

Things that Aren’t Activism

1. Signing an Online Petition

You’ve probably seen these in your email or ads on your phone. They’ll say things like “add your name here to tell Congress to [do something]”.
I have bad news. This is literally the most worthless thing you can do. Those don’t do ANYTHING. Politicians and other political campaigns use those to collect your email address. Which they then use to try and get you to donate to them. That’s it. If you’ve signed 100 or 1000 online petitions, all you did was give away your email address. Sorry.
These are particularly irksome because when I’ve collected signatures for a real petition, I’ve had people tell me “I think I already signed online” and walk away feeling good about themselves. *sigh

2. Tweeting/Facebooking

You might be feeling good about yourself because you don’t fall for online petitions. Instead, you spend 4 hours every day convincing everyone you know, (and they know) to adopt your political views by bombarding your facebook and twitter feed with news stories about “I can’t believe what THOSE guys did”.

First of all, the amount of time you spend sharing news stories is probably not well spent. Chances are you’re spreading Fake News and falsely attributed quotes amongst your articles. The second problem is that 4 out of 5 people have never been swayed by something they saw on social media. And of those who did it was mostly left-leaning people become more left and right-leaning people becoming more right. That’s because, Third, social media (especially at the extremes) tends to be an echo chamber of people who already mostly agree. Check out the WSJ app that gives a great visualization of this.

But, But, didn't Russia change minds with facebook and Twitter? you ask.

When a big government wants to manipulate the public via social media they have the advantage of cash and bots. China makes 488 million fake posts a year. They also use advertising to reach people you’re not reaching in your echo chamber. Russia was spending $1.25 million a month on advertising. So unless you’re generating that level of resources, you likely aren’t making a dent.
In fairness, it is possible that you might convince one or two people on a particular issue. So it’s not completely useless. But if you want to be an activist who actually helps change the world, your retweets and Facebook shares isn’t enough.

There is one particular exception to this which I’ll get into in the next section.

3. Arguing with people online(comments, forums, twitter, etc…)

I would hope why this is pointless would be self-evident. Most people have never been swayed by a social media post. It takes several exposures to change the mind of a typical person(which is why governments need millions in ads and bot networks to influence social media). Chances are, you are not properly trained in persuasion techniques, so even if you’re correct, you can’t convince people. Worst of all, it’s possible to create blowback and make the people you’re arguing with, even more entrenched.

This, of course, is assuming anyone reads or engages with you. Fewer and fewer people are reading internet comments. So that brilliant takedown you wrote on that youtube video will probably never see the light of day.

Of course, I’m not saying DON’T argue with people online ever. It can be good practice and help you to focus and understand your own position better. However, you aren’t going to be making a real impact by only engaging in online discussions where most people are just trying to shout the loudest.

4. Personal Boycott

If you purposely don’t shop at certain stores or buy certain products because you don’t like a companies policies or behavior, good for you for being a good consumer. However, you’re still not an activist.

Boycott’s more often fail than succeed. Only a well-organized campaign that gets wide attention is usually successful in changing a company’s policies. Sometimes boycotts can even backfire if there isn’t enough organized support behind it.

Also, Boycotts need to be hyper-focused on a specific policy or behavior. Something like “don’t sell a particular product” or “give employees health insurance”. Therefore, announcing on Twitter that you won’t shop at Wal-Mart because “they treat their workers poorly” might make you a conscientious consumer, but you’re going to have to try a little harder to be an effective activist.

5. Staying Informed about everything

It is laudable to try and stay informed about everything that is going on in the country or world. However, you are only one person. You cannot know everything. You will likely wear yourself out just trying to stay informed, let alone have time left to do anything about any of it.

An effective activist is usually better served to focus on particular topics and try to know that one issue inside out and backward. That way, you can be the expert on that one topic, and only have to know major developments on that one topic. It leaves you with time to actually do something about it. But even then, just being educated about a topic isn’t enough. You have to do something with that knowledge to be an activist.

6. Blogging

So you’re done sharing random articles all day. You’ve managed to resist starting 3 day long arguments in online comments. But you still want to contribute 5o the political process. What better way to start than by blogging.

I want to start with the good parts about blogging. First of all, blogging and writing are great ways for you to hone your arguments and discover any assumptions you may have made that don’t stand up to scrutiny.

However, so many new bloggers start by sharing a recent news story and ranting in righteous anger and quickly hit “Post” to try and capitalize on the news cycle. This doesn’t do a whole heckuva lot to convince others, nor inform others already on your side.

If you don’t do that and wrote interesting articles, that’s great. You are a successful blogger, but are you an activist at this point? There is no issue that is one well-written hot take or thinkpiece away from being resolved. (Yes, I note the irony that I’ve written this statement on my blog!)
If your Blog is both the start and end of your activism, then, sorry, you’re not an activist.

7. Talking Only with People you Agree With

So let’s say you finally pull away from your computer. You’re going to venture out into the world and talk to real human beings about the ills of society. Fantastic! Only a couple more ways your attempts at activism can be fumbled.

Only talking politics when in a room of people who agree with you, is not being an activist. I’ve seen this thing where everyone stands around and takes turns talking about how obvious the issue is, and how the opposition is being ridiculous. Some even try to one-up each other to show off how much they know about the issue.

Unfortunately, while this can be a very cathartic activity — especially when it feels like the world is against your very obviously correct opinion— it isn’t activism. Standing around and showing off your opinions and knowledge does not change the world.

8. Insulting People You Disagree With

Alright, you’re getting close. You have gone out and decided to talk to people you disagree with; persuade them on an issue or candidate. You’re doing great.

Whether the person is a stranger, colleague, or family, the only way to muck it up now is to insult them while doing talking to them. There is a number of ways to insult a person. In politics the two most common I see is a childish insult, and a refusal to hear what others have to say.
When trying to persuade someone, it’s best not to call them a Nazi, a Marxist, a redneck, an out of touch elitist, racist, snob, communist, blame America Firster, bigot, commie\socialist\stalinist, and the list goes on. You would think it would go without saying that if you’re going to try and persuade somebody, try to refrain from calling them names. If you even bring up those terms, chances are you won’t make a lick of difference.

The second way you can insult someone is to refuse to acknowledge that they are a person with real concerns. No matter how small or unlikely a person’s concerns are, they are(as far as they know- I don’t want to get into psychology) from a genuine place. While prominent politicians and pundits might purposely ratchet up fear for their own ends(e.g. Claiming terrorists are coming with refugees), the average person on the street is genuinely concerned.

So if you blow off their concern without addressing it or changing their frame of mind, you’re going to fail, and maybe make it harder for the next person to persuade them. It might feel right to blow them off as being ridiculous, but without persuading anyone you disagree with, you’re actually making it worse.

9. Voting

Obviously, you should be voting(early and often). However, voting alone doesn’t make you an activist. No matter how much time you spent getting informed, or talking about voting with people you agree with. Not even voting in primaries counts. Voting is the minimum requirement to be a good citizen. Activism takes more work.

10. Protesting with No Follow-up

From numbers 1 through 9, you’ve probably picked up on a theme. You can’t be an activist sitting behind your computer screen or staying in your comfort zone. Instead, you’re going to have to go out into the real world and get out of your comfort zone.

Attending a rally or a protest for an issue you care about deeply is a great way to do that. So let’s say you go to the rally, you clap and cheer the speakers, go home and feel good about doing something. I’ve got bad news for you. You've achieved nothing and still not really an activist. If it’s not obvious yet, then you don’t understand the purpose of most protests and rallies.

The point of a protest is to rally your supporters and show others who agree with you that they are not alone or powerless. No single protest or rally by itself can achieve change. Instead, it’s an organizing opportunity to find out how to get involved and start making change happen. So, if you go to a protest, then go home and pat yourself on the back while watching yourself on the news, you’ve accomplished nothing.

What does activism look like?

So I’ve spent several paragraphs explaining what doesn’t make you an activist. If you see yourself in those descriptions and are fretting, do not despair. The fact that you want to do something is admirable. So here are some things you can do.

1. Activist Journalism

Even though I said blogging doesn’t make one an activist, there is an exception. And that exception is if you are doing original reporting. So while most blogs only share or rehash news from other sources, you can be an activist if you’re reporting original news.

The important thing is to get off your duff and find information for your cause that can’t be found anywhere else on the internet. This can be done by following a politician to his public appearances, getting public records that aren’t available on the internet, or interviewing someone with an interesting story. Do that, and you can consider yourself an activist for your cause.

Here is a pretty good(and recent) article about doing a political blog and great ideas for (gasp!) original content.

2. Volunteering for a Campaign

This is probably an obvious one. Find a candidate that you like and trust, and then go volunteer for her or him. My recommendation is to look at State and local elections -especially judicial elections. These can get ignored by others who only pay attention to the national news and you can therefore have an outsized impact.

A frequently overlooked way to be an activist is a campaign not associated with a candidate. If your city or state has them, you can join a ballot initiative. There are also issue groups out there that always need help(not just on election years) . Your local NAACP or local ACLU chapters could be a good start.

3. Build your Party

Another great way to have a big impact is to join your state and local political party. Parties depend heavily on volunteers. And if they can rely on volunteers that means they don’t have to rely on the corrupting influence of big money donors to do their party building.

Of course, just joining the party won’t make a difference. You will want to network, learn how they work, and find like-minded people to lead reforms. The recent reform of superdelegates is a good example of state and local activists making their voices so loud they were heard at the national level.

4. Have an in-person discussion with people you disagree with

One thing that is always needed, and campaigns can’t get enough of, is people who are willing to talk with those who are open and persuadable. This can look like walking a neighborhood or having a promotional booth at a public event.

But talking to people you disagree with doesn’t just have to be in the context of persuading them for a campaign. Sometimes it is good to just interview them for your own knowledge. Once you know people’s concerns, you will know how to create a compelling argument in favor of your future cause.
If you routinely find yourself talking to people who disagree with you, listening to them, and sometimes even persuading them, you can count yourself as an activist.

5. Organizing People You Agree With

If activist journalism isn’t your cup of tea, if there aren’t any local candidates you would be particularly proud to volunteer for, and there are no local issue groups that you want to volunteer for, there’s one last alternative. You can find and organize people whom you do agree with.
This is the only time social media can be considered “activism”. Using social media can be a great way to find others who agree with you and start an organization around your particular issue. Just remember what I said above, you have to eventually get out from behind the keyboard.

Rule of Thumb

I want to end with some general rules. First, if your activist activity doesn’t include getting out from behind a computer(or phone) screen, chances are, you aren’t doing anything worthwhile. There are very rare exceptions to this. One is if you’re just starting to connect with like-minded people, and will be doing real life stuff later.  Another exception I’ve seen is people organizing advertiser Boycotts entirely online - that is the only time I’ve ever seen activism work entirely on the computer.

Another way to tell if your activism is working to change the world(instead if just placating your ego) is to ask yourself how you feel after you’re done. Most activists will tell you they feel energized and full of positive energy after meeting with people, or working in a campaign office with other people. If you don’t feel energized(like after a Twitter fight), maybe you need to take a second look at how you’re spending your time.

Thanks for reading this. If you think I described someone you know, why not share this article with them?


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