Simply put, one could define an activist as a person who campaigns to bring about political or social change. This description lacks depth and overlooks vital aspects, benefits and consequences of this lifestyle – and activism certainly is a lifestyle choice, and not just a hobby. With this broad definition, any person who shares social media posts with a political message is therefore an ‘activist’. Some people do even subscribe to this label although they are merely digital preachers of political causes. Hundreds of examples of this can be seen particularly on Instagram and Twitter. This would not have been an option for the activists of history.
Before the explosion of digital communication and the eruption of “twitter wars”, activism required one to at least step into the real world. From Rosa Parks and the Suffragettes, to MLK Jr. and Gandhi, these activists were forced to stand for their beliefs without the ability of using ‘anonymous accounts’ or for thousands of their followers to mass-report a platform whose views disagreed with their own. Their lives were dedicated to the cause which they were essential to. Projecting ideas online is of course an essential element of any modern activism, as much as you may or may not despise social media, but there are other factors missing from many people who may call themself an ‘activist’ today.
I would only refer to someone as an activist if they committed completely to my criteria of such: they must live by their principles, prioritise their ideological purpose, and be prepared to accept the consequences of their lifestyle.
Imagine a vegetarian who eats pork, or an anarchist in the Police force. This is the same as an environmentalist who drives a 4×4, or a localist in England whose wardrobe is full of clothes from Bangladesh – ridiculous. Of course, we must be practical and accept that it is similarly ridiculous to propose that anyone anti system, for example, should retreat to the forest. However, any activist who claims to oppose anything should aim to avoid it as much as realistically possible, just as any activist who claims to be in favour of something should make greater-than-average efforts to make use of it. For any person who claims to hold the title of ‘activist’, saying one thing and doing another clearly undermines your own values. If anything, you damage your movement more than assist it, because your lack of self-discipline shows onlookers that even the loudest promoters will not change their behaviour, and if you are not willing to actively change your own life in the way that you wish others too, then why should they? Compare this lazy behaviour to activists of the past – in 1968, Yippie founder and prevalent anti-war activist Abbie Hoffman was asked what his price was to call off the revolution. For a true activist, there is no other answer than his two next words: my life. To commit anything less would mean compromising on his beliefs, which is why all activists must order their priorities accordingly.
Today it is admittedly far too easy for any of us to be sucked into any number of consumption habits. Young, intelligent men would rather order McDonalds through Deliveroo while they play Minecraft, than learn a new skill in order to further their apparent ideological principles. Even reading a book can seem like climbing a mountain to those who often neglect their time instead by making use of Netflix’s automatic playing of the next episode. These people serve the rulers in a way similar to Huxley’s predictions in his 1932 novel, Brave New World. They lack the strong will required in activists, and cannot afford to be honoured with such a title. A balance of work and pleasure is required, as with all things, in balance, but ultimately political action must come before unproductive wasting of time. As Gandhi once famously said, “be the change you want to see in the world”.
Are you truly an activist if you are largely in line with the current system? I would not say so. You are certainly not a radical activist if the majority of our modern authorities agree with you, but if your cause is one which fits the current metapolitical direction anyway, then you may feel that the corporations and politicians are on your side. Even in this instance, activists should be at least prepared to encounter and withstand the consequences of opposing the current overseers of our society; those who launch political attacks in physical, economic and social forms against those with opposing ideas. Significant political change is always an uphill struggle, and it will never come without facing enemies. From banned social media pages, to strained relationships, job insecurity and even physical attacks, radical politics attracts vicious attackers from across the political spectrum, and change will not come without making enemies. With this in mind, we must of course take precautions to protect ourselves, because an activist who loses their job by unnecessarily releasing personal information is suddenly a less-effective activist. Ultimately, any person engaging in activism must be prepared to encounter and exert additional effort in order to avoid these consequences, otherwise they will one day meet a hurdle too tall for them to jump, or fall too hard to get up from, and their political efforts will cease.
With the demanding nature of activism, which is admittedly unattractive, it is vital that we question why people have historically, and today continue, to stand their ground for their beliefs. Firstly, people join for one of a dozen reasons; aside from genuine interest in political change, one may apply because they seek social inclusion, because they have been pushed by peer pressure, because they feel uncomfortable with society and want to just do something about it, because they want to present a cool, radical image of themselves, or because their ego leads them to believe that they are ‘destined’ for some form of greatness, which would be achieved via a political path. There are a plethora of other reasons for someone to involve themselves in politics actively.
On the other hand, there are only a few reasons why one would commit themselves to be an activist by the above definition. Activists find purpose in not only improving situations not for themselves, but for the future. Personally, I believe that political activism is a part of being a good parent; I am doing everything I can to create a better environment for my future children before I am even a father, just as a good parent engages in smart financial planning before the child’s birth. However, it is important to note that some gay men and women dedicate their lives to creating political change, and this is due to the two elements which all activists hold in high regard: selflessness, and the recognition of something bigger than themselves. Whether we are referring to an environmentalist preserving the environment, a patriot caring for their country, or a Marxist pushing for the distribution of wealth, all activists ultimately subscribe to fight for something more important than themselves. This is the common driving force amongst all activists, even those who face against one another. This essential perspective is the antithesis of our increasingly short-sighted, individualist consumer culture today, and as more capable people succumb to ‘an easy life’, more people feel some form of awakening to engage themselves for a larger purpose than consumption and work.
I have also found that many activists feel, as I do, intrusive and inescapable feelings of wanting to do something. It is a blessing and a curse, like an anchor that cannot be lifted: you cannot drift away, whether you want to or not. These feelings serve as a motivation to correct injustices as they are witnessed, and pull the activist back in after they feel burned out. The people whose feelings pull them back to political activism are often the same people who, on a smaller scale, will step in between two fighting strangers, or will go to extra lengths to return a lost item to its owner. This gravitational duty is common amongst activists amongst the political spectrum, and I expect it is one of many things which we all have in common.
A significant excuse of people who lay down and accept the system they dislike is that “[political change] can never happen here”, which is directly addressed by Srdja Popovic in Blueprint for Revolution. This book, which serves as a guide to non-violent activism and accounts the story of Serbian group Optor! explains how this feeling of defeat, before even attempting to make change, is very common. Popovic proposes that this view changes for someone who first witnesses a spark of revolution. For Optor!, it was a punk band on the back of a flatbed truck, singing songs which opposed the Serbian dictator. The Egyptians said the same to Popovic as he was planning to change their country with them for the better. The activists in Georgia said the same before the Rose Revolution of 2003. The activists in Ukraine said the same before the Orange Revolution of 2004. It was the same in Lebanon before the Cedar Revolution of 2005, and in the Maldives before democracy was installed in 2008. There was certainly doubt in the minds of Gandhi, MLK Jr. and Che before their successes, and while a status as legendary as theirs is not required for activism, we can see that any person despairs before their victory, even some of the greatest political activists in history. One fact is definite: there will be no victory if there is no attempt.
Many find activism to be very rewarding. Of course political change is the ultimate goal, whatever that may be, but along the way there will be a great number of stories which very few people can say they have also experienced. Even so far as to shout on a megaphone in a crowded high street with controversial statements is unimaginable to most, and to your children they may not even believe that you have climbed a rooftop and chained a banner to the railing, draping it over the edge for all those below to see. Bold statements and bravery is naturally appreciated by all; from the grateful handshakes of those you help, to the unspoken appreciation from the silent onlooker, and I even dare to say the involuntary respect of some political opponents, who also understand the struggles of activism despite their differing values. These moments combined with the strong formation of fraternal bonds between those who share your struggle, who hold the same values and share the same devotion to the same ideas as you. All of this, in an effort to provide a better future for my children and their children, is why I bother.
“A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” – Ancient Greek Proverb