Saheli*: Musings and Observations
Monday, December 19, 2005
 
Activism and Protests

I've been thinking a bit about what it means to be a political activist. The word is really strange, if you think about it. Activist--one who engages in political activism.

First my impression of the word without looking it up: taking the time and making the commitment to exert pressure--through petitioning, campaigning, communicating, filing of comments and briefs, demonstrating, protesting, obstructing, and sometimes even destroying--on a political system, in order to influence or reverse political decisions. Anything beyond voting really, though "political activist" implies the time commitment and focus of major hobby or actual occupation, rather than the occasional forwarding of an email. Of all these possible actions, I see only the last two as potentially illegal or possibly problematic. In some sense, I simply take the phrase literally--being active in the polis. So really, any concerned citizen should be an activist. It's a basic lesson in elementary school civics that voting is the most minimal performance of duty.

Now let us look at Dictionary.com:
The use of direct, often confrontational action, such as a demonstration or strike, in opposition to or support of a cause. (Source: The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition)
and
a policy of taking direct and militant action to achieve a political or social goal. Source: WordNet , Princeton University.
That seems a little strong. There is a large spectrum of action between voting and demonstrating that's not in the definition. Confrontational implies physical--it does not include filing amica curiae briefs, going to meetings and making comments on policy decisions, or writing letters to the editor. The second definition is even more narrow--direct and militant action. What the hell does militant even mean anymore?
  1. Fighting or warring.
  2. Having a combative character; aggressive, especially in the service of a cause: a militant political activist.
The connotation seems to be that activists have to be hostile and combative.

No wonder most people don't want to be political activists. But if they do want to do all the other things I listed--petitioning, campaigning, communicating, filing of comments and briefs, demonstrating, protesting--there is no good word for just that. The word I would use, anyway, is activism. So might they. And then they do it. They describe themselves as political and social activists. And in San Francisco they are admired and respected. But in other places--even, say, other places right around here--and in other ecologies of language, they've just labeled themselves as combative, aggressive, confrontational and warring. Not simply concerned citizens doing their duty.

Take a look at the GoogleNewsforProtests: Korean farmers protesting at the WTO meeting in Hong Kong; in Delhi the protest of the forced demolition of thousands of illegal structures; in the UK protests over newly minted gay marriages; In Iraq demonstrations over the high price of gas; in Russia rallies against anti-immigrant Nationalism, in Scotland protests over whether the airport was used to refuel the CIA "torture flights," and in the United States a church group protests Wal-Mart's wishing us Happy Holidays.

One of these things is not like the others. Narrowing for the source to be in the United States doesn't change much, because American papers cover foreign protests, but sifting through rhetorical uses of the word protest, I find an animal rights protest of a KFC, and opposition to the light-skinned depiction of King Tut.

No mention of war, post-Katrina repairs or lack thereof, or the huge appropriations and defense bills going down.

What do you think activism means?
 


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Saheli Datta started this when she was a journalism student at Columbia in New York. Now she lives in the Bay Area. *Old people call me R. New people, call me Saheli. Thanks! My homepage. Specifically, my links. Email me: Saheli [AT] Gmail [dot] Com

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