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What is good activism?

July 10, 2023

I had a letter from a young reader last week, asking what I thought about concrete steps that we might be taking in place of what passes for activism in our present culture. It’s a good question to ask, though I can’t say that I’m the expert. Then again, maybe nobody is. Maybe there is no expert. Because there is no one thing that people can do. What is needed is based on specific place. There are many things needed, and what is needed in Central Vermont is not at all the same as what is needed in Southern California, never mind South Africa. There are so many things that need to be built, nobody could be an expert. However…

There are some general things that I think will be helpful no matter what the future brings. I’ve written out a short list. It’s short but it has the potential to fully occupy all of us for the foreseeable future — because we’ve made that little progress getting ourselves ready for the biophysical and cultural polycrises that we have already set in motion.

But since composing that list, I’ve decided that there is another much less practical but much more important task facing humanity. It might be related to education, #6 on my To-Do List, but it goes deeper than learning about the world. It is learning to place ourselves back within the world. So to a large degree it is learning about ourselves and understanding the part we play as Earthlings.

There is need for knowledge — the acquisition of data, facts, recorded experience — but to know what to do with all that information we also require a framework of interpretation. We need to decide what this present moment is before we can figure out how to change it with action. And to do that, we have to define values, ethics, goals, needs. We have to have reasons, meaning, understanding and motivation. All this is part of a belief system, a world view, a framework for data. Yet, for many good reasons (and probably a few bad ones), the last half-century has jettisoned not just our erstwhile frameworks but often the whole notion that there is or should be a frame.

Unfortunately, this is more true of the progressive left than the reactionary right. The neoliberals, tech-bro culture, monotheism fundamentalists, and so on all have a world view (here is a funny take on just one example). They are experts on sifting through facts and making up a compelling and internally consistent story that fits within their value-system. They also just make up facts. But because they have a framework, a belief system, those fallacies are easily absorbed into their accepted notions of reality — because that data makes sense within their framework of interpretation even if it is manifestly and demonstrably false. It doesn’t matter how much validated information or reasoned argument is thrown at people with these beliefs. In fact, one of their core beliefs — that their way of life is threatened — is triggered when faced with counter-information. They take any opposing data as evidence, not that they are wrong, but that they are right. The world is out to get them — especially those namby-pamby intellectuals and bureaucrats who think they’re better than us. They are incapable of both holding their belief system and internalizing data that doesn’t fit into that system. And their belief system rewards them with privilege… so… facts are irrelevant. It’s the story that matters…

And we, on the other side, don’t have A Story… because we feel that A Story is wrong. Because it is wrong. There is no A Story. All stories are rooted in the wisdom of place. Frames are relative. And we’ve spent decades pointing out the relationship in this world, the specificity, the wrongness of a universal frame, and haven’t yet spent much effort on building up the small frames. In fact, it seems to me that we haven’t yet figured out that frames, stories, are needed. We’re still in the tearing-down phase.

Post-modernism and relativism were important ideas that enabled new voices to be heard, to be relevant and real. But I believe there might be too much of relativism. Or maybe too little of building up new ideas to replace the ones that were destroyed when challenged. We’ve thrown away the whole bath — water, baby and tub. We are high and dry above the murk that used to blind us to the harm that many human systems have caused — that which still occludes sight on the reactionary right — but we don’t have a new story to make sense of the world we can now see. It’s all just meaningless data, often contradictory and confusing. How do we make a to-do list when we can’t define reality and therefore what is needed within that reality? More importantly, what does activism even mean in a relative context?

Whatever it means, it’s fairly obvious that activism has accomplished very little given the immense expense and effort put into it. This is partly because the more visible and large-scale it is, the less likely that it’s doing anything to effect real change. There is no act in activism. Or perhaps it’s all act, as defined by the falsity of theatre. It is not the concrete work of building and mending, which is all small and local and not very newsworthy. Activism is not really even much theatre about that concrete work that might be done, probably because that work is small and local and not very newsworthy. Activism does not prescribe action nor present a future that might be made real by prescribed actions. It is mostly talk about what we’ve done wrong and the horrors we’ve thereby set in motion. It is reactivism, backward-looking and finger-wagging.

There are good reasons for this. First, there is quite a lot that needs to be exposed and all of it deserves finger-wagging. But being against something is not the same as being for something else. Nor is opposition to the past all that good at inspiring the hard work that must be done by the present and for the future. Activism is also hampered by operating within the system that it opposes. Because it hasn’t yet fully understood relativism — the fact that relativism doesn’t change centralizing politics, it eliminates it — or because it hasn’t figured out how to use relativistic ideas to inspire mass action, it is operating within the framework of centralization and bigness and hierarchy, even though all activists know that these ideas are responsible for enabling the disasters we face.

So we have this paradox. Activism is large-scale. It is centrally directed. It is prescribing from above. And therefore activism, like our current system, is not capable of doing the necessary action, the work, because it does not operate at the level of the small, specific places where work needs to happen. Nor can it exist as it is — large, centralized and hierarchical — in small places, all of which have specific needs, none of which are all that appealingly inspirational to the outside world. Relativism is not that interesting to a wider world. Nobody cares about my potato patch except me. Nobody will contribute to it, nor will they benefit from it. In places that are not Central Vermont, my potato patch, as it exists, may not even be relevant or possible, however much it is true that to build a sustainable future, my potato patch is a central and necessary act of creation. Here. For me. It is not The Path; it is a path… And you just can’t build an inspirational activist campaign around that…

However, you can build a story. One that might include some activism to continue to reveal the damages. But also one that includes the small work that needs to be done. Yet this is where activists really fail. They have not created a story — because they don’t trust stories. Or they don’t trust The Story, the ideas and beliefs and values that have dominated the last few hundred years and have completely wiped out all opposing stories in the last few decades. Activism is under a double-bind of not wanting to seem domineering like the system they oppose and yet wanting to coerce (um… inspire) people to do things — and it’s just not possible to be both. We need a story. Something to motivate real action, not just theatrical reaction.

So, because I am a storyteller, I made up my own story, complete with genesis

And, because I believe in the wisdom of places, my story is intentionally vague. It is a framework, not a to-do list. It is a belief system that enables me to process information, to determine meaning and decide what is relevant and useful. Note that I’m not deciding what is true. There are many true things that are completely inapplicable, harmful even, to my place. Bigness, centralization and hierarchy are certainly true. They might even be good somewhere… though I have a hard time imagining such a place. Or rather I have a hard time imagining that such a place would be good for other places, that its goodness is commensurately big and not just concentrated in its centralizing, hierarchical apparatus. Still, that might be my limited imagination, conditioned as it is in this system.

I believe in my to-do list, and I think it is probably going to useful anywhere. But I don’t know that. I don’t know your place. So I can’t tell you how to be in that place. I don’t know what works in that place. I can’t prescribe specific actions. But I know what does work. Because it has worked for humans for longer than we’ve been humans. I know that a few basic rules, a framework, a system of belief — a story, however much based in biophysical fact — will always help you make sense of your place and all the needs within that place. And, not only will it define the needful work, it will motivate that action. You will know what is necessary and you will want to make it happen. You will make it happen. You will be an activist.

But first you have to be… a storyteller.

 

Teaser photo credit: Story Teller by Gaganendranath Tagore. By gajendranath tagore – https://www.oldindianarts.in/search/label/Gaganendranath%20Tagore?updated-max=2010-05-29T21:56:00%2B05:30&max-results=20&start=40&by-date=false, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=119739752

Eliza Daley

Eliza Daley is a fiction. She is the part of me that is confident and wise, knowledgable and skilled. She is the voice that wants to be heard in this old woman who more often prefers her solitary and silent hearth. She has all my experience — as mother, musician, geologist and logician; book-seller, business-woman, and home-maker; baker, gardener, and chief bottle-washer; historian, anthropologist, philosopher, and over it all, writer. But she has not lived, is not encumbered with all the mess and emotion, and therefore she has a wonderfully fresh perspective on my life. I rather like knowing her. I do think you will as well.

Tags: Activism, building resilient societies