What Makes You An Activist?
The word “activist” has lost its significance in our culture — differentiating those who make real social change from those who only pretend is getting harder
“Activist” has become a frequent title these days. With the continual push for minority rights amongst polarizing politics, anybody with a social media account wants to say they’re an activist.
Just last week, a friend told me how she included “women’s rights activist” on her resume, but I know that, besides a few tweets, she hasn’t actually done anything for the cause. I didn’t want to discourage her, but I also had trouble lumping her into the same category as fearless women like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Gloria Steinem or Angela Davis. These are women who risked their lives in the fight for equality, and they made real social changes beyond 140-character tweets.
I think the real issue here is that the word, “activist” or “activism” is thrown around so casually that it’s lost significance in our culture.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, an activist is someone who “uses or supports strong actions (such as public protests) in support of or opposition to one side of a controversial issue”.
This definition does shine some light on what an activist is, but it still leaves plenty up to interpretation. What exactly is a strong action? Do you need to march in protests and sign petitions to define yourself as an activist for your cause, or will sharing articles from Vice on Facebook suffice?
Since Merriam-Webster has been a little vague, I’d like to offer up my own definition of what I think activism looks like— as well as what I think it doesn’t look like.
Supporter vs. Activist
Although many people with a social media account and an opinion would like to call themselves an activist, there’s actually a much more fitting term: supporter.
There’s a big difference between an activist and a supporter. An activist primarily tries to directly influence social change by attending public protests, calling their congressmen, running for local office, attending town hall meetings, etc.
A supporter, on the other hand, works indirectly. They may post about their cause on social media or write a blog post about it, but you probably won’t see them protesting in the streets.
A supporter might raise awareness about minority rights, but an activist will actually seek to change the social climate by protesting or lobbying a bill.
My friend, the one who was so quick to call herself a women’s rights activist, would be more of a supporter than an activist by this definition. She may be raising awareness about gender inequality, but her tweets are doing little to affect public policy.
Keep in mind that there isn’t anything wrong with just being a supporter. Activism is not easy. It often requires a strenuous time commitment and you could face dangerous public backlash — which is why it’s important not confuse the minimal efforts of a supporter with the activists who put themselves at risk for social change and equality.
An activist is educated on their cause
While attending college, I’ve met quite a few self-proclaimed activists. Some of them have been inspiring and devoted, but others have made me question whether or not they read anything more than headlines.
The truth is — it’s difficult to advocate for a cause if you don’t know anything about it. Plenty of people will tweet, post and comment about topics they really don’t understand. As an activist, it’s important to educate yourself — not only on the history of your cause but on its current status. This means reading online articles, picking up a few books and familiarising yourself with arguments from the other side.
Not only will this help you educate others and refute opposition, but you’ll know exactly what you’re fighting for when you attend town hall meetings or sweat under the hot sun in a protest.
An activist is open to discussion and dialogue
Activists will, no matter what they’re fighting for, always deal with dissenting opinions. You won’t be able to have a rational conversation with everyone, but an essential part of social change is open dialogue.
If you can’t tell others why your cause is important, or refute opposition, you won’t be able to make much progress. You could be the most passionate person on the planet, but unless you can transform some of that passion into a logical argument, your good intentions won’t matter. You won’t be able to sway everyone — and you shouldn’t expect to — but an educated, open dialogue will always make people think closely about their own views.
An activist doesn’t have to advocate for a big cause to be an activist
Up to this point, I’ve been using minority rights as my prime example of activism — mostly because this covers a large portion of who we think of as activists. However, activism takes place on both small and large fronts.
A good example of this is the Canadian teens who peacefully protested against their school dress code. The teens wore yellow squares on their shirts to raise awareness about their cause and created a Facebook page where they discussed what dress code changes they wanted their school to make.
Even though dress codes are a much larger issue, the teenagers in this example primarily focused on changing the rules within their school. Their activism efforts were small, but not any less important than “bigger” causes.
Bottom-line: your cause does not determine whether or not you’re an activist — the steps you take to change your surroundings and accomplish your goals are what make the difference.
My definition of activism may not match up with everyone else’s, but I’d like to think that activism is more than sharing a news article or tweeting a few kind words. Our past has been carved out by activists who risked their lives and even died for their causes. As we continue to fight for social change and equality, I hope we’re careful about the labels we give to those who fight for these goals directly — and those who support them from the sidelines.