According to the findings of a new study, activists such as environmentalists and feminists tend to be viewed in such a negative light that they trigger resistance to social change rather than support of it. That, of course, contradicts the goal of many individuals who engage in political activism. But why are many people so offended by activists that they shut down and become defensive?
I developed a huge amount of respect for all people involved in political activism ever since I started doing some of my own. After all, it takes a lot of time, resources and energy to actively support a particular cause. Activists invest money in materials, they spend their free time copying flyers and standing around in the cold, and often the actual political effects of such actions are minimal. So while advocates for environmental, feminist or other causes have my admiration, it makes me resent those who use the same tactics to militate for things i find despicable even more.
Let’s face it, there are a great deal of advocates against progress and human rights. These people offend me, too, not just because I disagree with their politics, but because they have the audacity to spend their valuable time on spreading hate and limiting other people’s freedom and equality.
However, it is too shortsighted to claim that people don’t hate activists per se, but only those whose goals and convictions they reject. After all, the studies suggest that the participants were supporters of the ideas in general. The environment, animal rights and women’s equality – these are generally causes everyone who is not particularly hateful and vile can get behind. As usual, the devil is in the details. Note that the studies’ participants resorted to stereotyping activists with traits that they primarily deemed negative: loud, forceful, assertive, overreactive. Naturally, that is how protesters get attention, by disrupting the comfort of the status quo. And that’s really the problem, isn’t it? People may say they generally agree with certain ideas, but only as long as pursuing these ideas doesn’t affect their lifestyles too harshly. Outspoken and engaged activists, however, make them aware – through their mere existence – that they are doing too little or nothing at all. Ignorance and apathy are not a good look, but only through activists (i.e. open criticism and direct action) are people reminded of these bad traits and forced to reflect. And of course, supporting a cause that one is not willing to put any effort in is not really support at all.
This problem fits nicely into the current debate on “rebranding feminism” – the search for a “better” representation of the movement to get more people on board with it. This move is a reaction to the classic “I’m not a feminist but…” statement, and will certainly feel further justified by studies such as the ones linked above. The bottom line for the Salon article reads: “Avoid rhetoric or actions that reinforce the stereotype of the angry activist”, and a few new initiatives dedicated to “rebranding feminism” are picking up on that.
The problem with such “rebranding”, however, is the danger of watering the ideas of feminism down and turning it into a movement that’s careful not to step on anyone’s toes. Such a feminism would lose its basic foundation – the struggle. As the always brilliant Flavia Dzodan states: “I do not conceive feminism as the end in itself. To me, feminism is the vehicle I use for the journey, not the end point where my journey ends.” I understand this to mean that getting more people to openly adopt the label does not mean anything, if there is no work behind it, no reflection, learning, questioning. If anything it allows people to wear it like a badge of honor without any substance, or worse: with contradictory ethics.
(TW for the links in next paragraph)
We can see this development in the animal rights movement. Organizations such as PETA continue to sell veganism as something worthy of embrace because supposedly it is cool, it makes you hotter and a “better” lover. Such campaigns are directed at people who are not actually interested in the systems of oppression underlying the issue; that is why they can legitimize oppressing other groups (i.e. women) for the sake of promoting the label.
If these are the means to an end, what is the end worth? To put it bluntly: what good is a vegan who disrespects women? When political convictions become little more than fashion statements, a greater community of supporters ends up as just a bunch of people mindlessly following a trend.
They will do so no matter what. “Trending topics” on social justice, on Twitter or elsewhere, are shaping the media landscape and the public debate, and often that is a good thing. But we need to make sure that when this happens, there is actual substance to debate about. If feminism becomes acceptable only because sexy hip young women are doing it, the message has already been skewed. “Angry, hairy lesbians” are only an image problem in a society dominated by hetero-patriarchal norms. A feminism that doesn’t address this as problematic, is not really feminism at all.