Civil Rights And Activism

It's unpleasant to wage even a metaphorical war. When it's done properly, we are taken out of our own comfort zones and forced to confront things that we prefer to avoid. But human nature being what it is, unless we instill a sense of outrage in a person we have failed to create an ally. We have merely created a person who feels quietly sorry for the marginalized, or maybe even dismisses the issue as unimportant in the grand scheme of things. Our job is more than that. This isn't to say that there is no place in the fight for quieter roles and daily support; those are absolutely necessary and inherently valuable. Still, unless that support is bolstered by a louder and more visible activism, systemic change is impossible. We need to pursue both tracks in parallel by providing concrete support to remove barriers and make daily life possible and also fighting to change societal assumptions and attitudes. If we don’t do this, we will find ourselves having to fight the individual battles over and over again without seeing the overall situation improve.

Political engagement is inescapably adversarial. You have to give people a reason to care about a thing that they don't perceive as affecting them personally. You have to make it clear to them that it is a matter of human dignity. It is visceral and immediate. It is not a thing that can be tolerated for a single second more. You cannot create this sense of urgency quietly, or you undermine your own argument. This is why every civil rights battle in American history is framed by the movement as a fight against unfair laws or attitudes. Patience is a luxury granted only to the unaffected. Activism must involve making people uncomfortable, because comfort creates apathy and complacency is deadly to any cause.


But once that sense of urgency has been instilled, it can still be difficult to get people engaged. This hesitancy is one of the most intimidating parts of organizing. It can be scary and certainly is uncomfortable. But it isn’t insurmountable, and it can be done in a compassionate, logical way. There are four typical objections to activism; that is to say, reasons that people give for not engaging a topic. This abstract is meant to outline and give solutions for each of them.

1. Ease

Many people care in theory about civil liberties. When they see someone in a wheelchair struggling to enter a building that isn't very accessible, they think to themselves that someone should do something. But most people think activism is a job for others, because nobody has told them that activism can be as simple as telling a business owner to please fix the ramp during their transaction. They are unaware that activism is a thing that is easy, that fits in with their busy lives, that does not necessarily require a consuming passion for the issue. It merely requires a decent sense of empathy and a willingness to utter a single sentence. It is available to everyone, at any time. Getting past this objection is a matter of framing.


2. Hopelessness

This is simply a matter of refocusing. Many people look at the totality of an issue and get discouraged by the sheer scope of the thing. Sometimes they've fought and lost, and can't find the motivation to fight another day. Perhaps they see the opposition as all-powerful and the fight as futile. We reach those folks by finding winnable, symbolic battles. If you can present a fight that has symbolic meaning and win it, people will naturally engage if you ask them to.


3. Privilege

Most people simply have never thought about things that don't affect them personally. We have an obligation to poke holes in privilege where we find it; otherwise we create no allies and we will leave marginalized groups to fight for their rights alone and disaffected. Building broad support is necessary in order to make any progress on an issue. I was appalled to learn that in this century, we are still fighting to ensure that people in facilities don't develop bedsores. Privilege is merely the luxury of being unaware of these sorts of things, and it's simple to make people aware of them. That makes them more likely to support our cause when we need them.


4. Resources

This category actually breaks down into a few discrete issues, which must be confronted with tailored approaches but the same basic strategy. People overwhelmed by their day-to-day lives find themselves short of emotional resources; they would do something if they could, but can't find an ounce more energy to use. This can be combated simply by taking activism to them and making it non-invasive; forwarding an email to a legislator can be done without a second thought. The same strategy can be used for people who lack time or money, which are the other typical resource-based objections.


A civil rights movement requires both front-line and support roles. It does no good to work to change societal attitudes and leave a marginalized population to struggle while they wait for change to occur; likewise, it doesn’t help overall to step in and make sure that people’s daily lives are manageable if we’re not working to change the things that make them unmanageable in the first place. That systemic change we all hope for only happens when we make people confront the realities of the system as it stands. People don’t confront their own privilege unless prompted, but holding a mirror up to them and asking them to take a good hard look isn’t nearly as difficult as it can seem. It’s just a matter of talking to a lot of folks and bringing them around.

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