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Activism and Integrity

My first mentor was a Zen Master. I gained her acquaintance at Argonne National Laboratories, of all places, where the Zen community I was part of at the time rented space for retreats. Despite her calm, centered demeanor – or perhaps because of it – I found her terrifyingly intimidating. Of all the people I'd met in my life, she embodied self-confidence and self-awareness to an unmatched extreme. Even worse, she was honest about who she was and who she wasn't, openly admitted her shortcomings, and maintained no façade. Meeting someone so blatantly, unabashedly real was... unnerving.

Why, you might ask, am I starting a post on activism by talking about mentoring? The answer to this question is simple: I believe activists have a lot to learn from effective mentors.

Mentoring is typically a one-on-one relationship wherein the knowledge, values or habits of the mentor hopefully rub off on the mentee. While the relationship between activists and the people they seek to influence is rarely one-on-one, the goal of activism remains identical to that of mentoring: to pass on knowledge, values or habits. I would also argue that the prerequisite for being a successful mentor and a successful activist are the same: integrity. Integrity, put simply, is the state of being honest, of living the set of moral principles one claims to espouse. The mentor must carry themselves in such as way that the mentee accepts them as a worthy source of whatever's to be transmitted, and if the mentor's integrity can't inspire at least a rudimentary level of trust and legitimacy the relationship won't amount to much.

Although there have never been as many activists alive as there are today, I feel like activism, as a social force, is floundering. I sensed a tacit acknowledgement of this in a recent piece by environmental activist Bill McKibben, titled We Want People to Change Their Minds, where he addresses the attempts of global warming skeptics to undermine climate activists’ work by calling them hypocrites. Hypocrites for investing in fossil fuels to power their own lifestyles and to drive and fly them to climate rallies, conferences and summits around the globe, even as they advocate for divestment from the companies that produce and process those fuels and attempt to stymie those companies' investments in infrastructure and resource development. Hypocrites, additionally, for advocating the enactment of policies that will constrain people's behavior in ways the activists themselves are unwilling to model. And hypocrites, more generally, for advocating a post-carbon lifestyle that diverges, often by a wide margin, from the lifestyles they choose to live.

Truth is, while the skeptics' intentions may be anything but pure, they're spot on in their accusations of hypocrisy. And this fundamental lack of integrity among climate activists - their unwillingness to live their purported values - has consequences for how effective they can hope to be in their work. It's not really about getting people to change their minds, as McKibben asserts, it's about getting people to change their actions, their lifestyles. Reducing atmospheric CO2 concentration to 350 ppm, for example, isn’t going to happen unless a lot of people change their behavior. In activism as in mentorship, people change their behavior in the presence of role models they look up to, role models with integrity. If individuals within an activist community lack the integrity to serve as legitimate role models, to whom can people turn for a positive example? The Zen Master with whom I practiced lived the changes she wanted to see in me, and this integrity formed the fertile ground that supported my own personal development.

Truth be told, my goal here is not to belittle Bill McKibben, nor is it to scold climate activists in particular or activists more generally. My goal is to invite people to look at the role integrity plays in activist pursuits, particularly those that ask people to change their behavior or to submit to legislative acts that seek to constrain it. How can activists expect to be taken seriously when they willfully behave in ways that run counter to the ideals they advocate? What's going on in the mind and heart of an individual who claims to hold one set of values, but whose lifestyle advertises a very different suite? How effective can a group of activists expect to be when they're unwilling to live the changes they work so hard to impose on others? I think these questions are worth sitting with, for activists in particular, but really for everyone.

In the age of point-and-click activism where it's easy for individuals to get lost in large, anonymous cyber-crowds, I think the importance of integrity has gotten lost. Looking back through history - at Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, and many others - it's clear that the most effective activists knew the value of integrity and worked hard to maintain it not only in themselves but also among those they worked closely with. If I may be so bold, I predict that only when activists again wake up to the importance of integrity as a foundation for their work might the tide turn in their favor. I hope this piece inspires some serious introspection among activist crowds, if for no other reason than to renew the power of activism in the 21st century.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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