Who Is an Activist?

The Minnesota Atheists and Humanists of Minnesota held their National Day of Reason event at the state capitol yesterday. Most years, they’re in the rotunda. This year, with the capitol under construction, they were moved to the capitol steps.

This was my first year attending. I’m usually working and in the wrong city to make it just an extended lunch. This year, though, I spoke to promote our conference.

I had planned to provide some straightforward information in the brief time I had allotted to me, but I changed my mind. My inspiration was the theme for the event–Atheists and Humanists at the Capitol–and the fact that it was raining. Yes, the two were connected.

As I stood at the podium with rain dripping down my nose (the canopy protecting the electronics had blown up in the wind as I waited to speak and dumped a good few tablespoons of water straight onto the top of my head; the pictures will be glorious), I asked people to put up their hands if they considered themselves activists. Most did, but there were a few holdouts. That’s right, people who were sitting in the rain for a political event designed to sway lawmakers, people who showed up to support legislators and policy advocates, didn’t all think they were activists.

That’s appalling enough, but I also knew I would get that answer when I asked the question. I was certain enough to base a short talk around it.

As much as I appreciate the recent push toward recognizing slacktivism and the need for activism to be effective, I think sometimes that it’s gone too far. Or perhaps the criticism implicit in that push simply needs to be balanced by affirmation of what activism is and that it isn’t always heroic or instantly effective. Perhaps it needs that all the more in which the battle for the “soul” of a movement sees some people gatekeeping regarding whose activism is valid (not mine, for instance, no matter what I do) and others making themselves feel better about fleeing a toxic situation by claiming no activism is occurring–or needed–anyway.

I didn’t bring that up during my remarks. I only had a few minutes, and they were dedicated to telling people how we would work to make them more effective as the activists they already are. I did talk about how media representations of atheist activists are limited in ways that make us less likely to recognize ourselves as activists, but that’s a different problem. Another problem.

We have enough problems making people recognize that they have the power to make change, which is a necessary precursor to getting them to try. Can we maybe stop suggesting to people that the category of activist is something reserved for only the people who are the best at it? I can channel people into more effective activism, and I have and I will, but I can’t do anything for people who don’t think anything they do makes a difference.

Yes, some people get huffy if you suggest they could improve their activism. They’re likely also to be the people who tell you to piss off if you talk about slacktivism. Instead of worrying quite so much about them, let’s take better care of the conscientious people who want to be better at this stuff, who are already worried that what they do isn’t good enough. They deserve and will reward our investment.

Along these lines, I really appreciated the last song Roy Zimmerman chose to play to finish out our event. It’s not a new song, but it was certainly timely for me. I think a few other people who question whether they’ve made enough of a difference to call themselves activists could use it too.

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Who Is an Activist?
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