One of the great things about social media is that it has given everyone, especially those in minority groups an outlet for their collective voices. But while many of these voices describe themselves as activists, what does this mean and how does activism serve the community ?
Generally, activism is given to mean the promotion of change through a peaceful and respectful conflict. To be successful, it needs to encompass a broad range of activities, including, defining, broadcasting, commentating, campaigning, demonstrating, lobbying and even boycotting or conversely patronizing. So how does it work in reality ?
Relatively few activists actually can actually claim to define activism for their community or cause, although many claim to. The people who define don’t just see the big picture, they frame and structure it for others to fill in the detail. Defining a cause, its principals, values, even the causes it should align too is extremely complex. If done properly, these don’t tend to change much once established and what follows is usually a debate by contemporaries and commentators about tweaking the core message to give it meaning and context in order to inspire future generations affected by it. Once established, people who define tend to act as figureheads for publicity, funding and endorsements to keep the profile of the cause visible and act as its moral compass, ensuring it stays true to its founding principals.
If you use Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp (etc etc etc) you’ll probably already realise that most activists are broadcasters. In these modern times, its so easy to be informed about the things that interest you. Its even more convenient to share, like and retweet messages that have caught your eye from friends or followers in your network. Although for some, this type of “Clicktivism” is worthless (usually quoting “Comment is free”) those that broadcast will counter that “sharing is caring”. And in truth, even if you haven’t got something to say about something but share it with those that might, that’s no bad thing. It’s a bit like a hi-tec version of wearing a badge !!! For me personally, there’s a code of honour when sharing though which is to quote the original source and thank the person that bought it to your attention. While there’s nothing wrong with getting credit for discovering something and bringing it to your networks attention, any author or researcher will tell you to respect copyright and to quote your references. Its also important to be humble enough to know that the cause is bigger than any person. You’re broadcasting to advocate a principal or value, not personal fame.
Commentators take broadcasts and the core message of the cause and will add their thoughts to it. Usually, they’ll do this via blogging, which they then broadcast via social media networks. Sharing perspective in this way ensures it’s robust, debated and meaningful to the wider community that it serves. Being “of the moment” it can take advantage of latest academic research, social policy, even changes in law. It encourages engagement and gives a banner for people to rally around. Being a commentator can be a thankless task though. You’re basically expressing an opinion and the minute you do that, there will be people that agree with you (YAY !!!) and those that don’t (BOOO !!!) I personally believe that being a commentator takes great restraint, compassion, understanding and no small measure of tolerance (not to mention a thick skin and the occasional case of deafness) As frustrating as it can be, particularly when you’re being abused by the members of the same group you’re part off, sometimes you have to be the bigger person. Remember, stand your ground but to respect others opinions, especially when they’re different to yours. That goes for you too, if you’re thinking of “replying”.
Campaigning, demonstrating and lobbying are three words which although have different skills are collectively all about not just motivating your causes community, but also influencing the wider society to align itself or at least, appreciate why your cause is important. You’ll need to be well informed, articulate, prepared to educate, repeat your message and above all, patient. You’re going to need to network and occasionally come into contact with people who aren’t going to share your views. or even people you would normally choose not to associate with. Sometimes, this can be a frustrating experience, but your integrity is worth more than any long term compromise. Compromising can make you appear two faced, confused and hypocritical, which will damage your reputation and effectiveness in the long term.
Depending on your preference, one, some or all of these activities will appeal to you, but no matter which, I believe the emphasis should always be on peaceful and respectful. Without these behaviours, you risk your campaign or message being lost or dismissed. As difficult as it can be in the face of abuse or even violence, its important to retain your dignity. The other, perhaps more important thing is also to consider is that once you align yourself with a cause and put yourself out there, virtually, or physically, you’ve stepped out the closet and it will be virtually impossible to go back in.