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What is Activist Culture?

What makes an activist?

Most people desire to live in a society based in justice, peace and respect for all. They wish they did not live in a society where wealth and power are concentrated in a few hands–not theirs! Most know, at least deep down, that the terrible imbalance of wealth, power and opportunity is kept in place through exploitation, coercion, deception and violence. To differing degrees people understand that many of their individual troubles stem from structural injustice.

Folks talk about these things with friends and family, and in different ways support social change: by contributing to candidates and causes, signing petitions, doing volunteer work and the like. During social movement upsurges a good number join in the action, and many more cheer them on. Where populations directly clash with authorities, other kinds of resistance and activism also become more common.

Nevertheless, most of the time the bulk of most people’s energies go towards living the best life they can under the tyranny of the status quo, rather than to changing it.

Some people do more. They step (or leap, or are brutally pushed) beyond the bounds of private discontent into the rewarding, challenging, arduous and risky arena of collectively organizing and spurring on movements for social transformation. They jump into the fray, usually in a particular arena they feel most connected to; they organize and attend meetings, hearings, marches, conferences, actions; write, make art, speak out, demonstrate, disrupt, challenge power in multiple ways; create new ways of living life in the midst of the old; celebrate wins, mourn defeats, and pick up the pieces in the aftermath, ready to push forward with the next movement.

Activists expend tremendous amounts of thought, energy, time, spirit, money and other resources doing these things. This work is not an add-on or a hobby; for activists, it is woven inextricably into the fabric of life.

“Activist” is not a perfect term, but it seems the most widely accepted. It does get at our basic nature: taking action, being agents for systemic change.

Who exactly ARE we talking about?

None other than the wildly diverse world-wide grab-bag of boat-rockers, neck-sticker-outers, city-hall-fighters, tree-huggers, community-builders, movement-makers, rabble-rousers, word-warriors, consciousness-raisers, society-changers, organizers, agitators, revolutionaries, freedom-fighters and creative gadflies who by words and example educate, motivate and activate others, mobilizing movements for a just and compassionate world…

A bunch of hyphenated trouble-makers.

And proud of it!

And the "activist community?"

The activist community would be the actual folks who ponder, discuss and thrash out options; reach out and keep reaching out; plan, worry, write, argue, cry, pace, lose sleep, cajole, encourage, comfort, celebrate, despair, pick themselves back up; come early, stay late, and much more, to ensure that actions and movements happen and that people know about them and that they get thought about and evaluated; that activists in trouble get remembered, defended, celebrated and mourned. And much more.

That’s the worldwide community of social justice activists. They are the heart of movements, not just (and not necessarily), the visible leaders, but the core folks without whom movements do not happen. They exist at the heart of all social justice movements.

What about people who march for White Power or against immigrants? 

They actively make trouble, that’s for sure.

If you believe in truly equal justice and human rights, and that injustice anywhere threatens justice everywhere, and if your life includes action to uphold these values in the world, you’re part of this worldwide community of activists. But if your fight for your own or your particular people’s issue entails opposing justice and rights of others; if you feel that your people’s interests depend on harming or suppressing other people and groups; or if you believe that you and yours are better or more valuable than other folks, then… you’re not.

Oh, so activists are all pure, with no mixed motives or prejudices?

That’s just the general outline, Sour Puss. You get to nose into all the mixed motives, shadows, conflicts and gray areas.

Activists are only human, after all.

What's activist culture?

How people in the activist community relate to one another and to the rest of the world, and how they think and act together is activist culture.

True, activists have all kinds of identities and belong to many cultures, constituencies, places and identities. We have all kinds of (often conflicting) schools of thought, styles, strategies and objectives.

What is unique about our culture is that its very purpose is to overturn the dominant culture and existing power structure in pursuit of universal justice, peace and planetary survival. Many cultures run afoul of the dominant culture and power structure at particular times and in particular places, but ours is by definition in conflict with the status quo because it seeks not merely to better the situation of people belonging to its own community, but to transform the entire society for the benefit of all peoples. While specific activist actions generally focus on certain people and issues, our overriding principle is that justice must be universal.

Many if not most people want things to go well for their own folks, whether they consider that group to be their immediate family, neighborhood, or their own religious or cultural community. We as activists also desire these things. However, we explicitly want and actively work to make things better for people and groups beyond our own immediate circles. And while we want and work for all kinds of improvements in the current status quo, for things to go as well as they can for as many folks as possible, we understand that the fundamentally unfair way society is organized must be transformed in order to make the world go well for all, winning a society based in fairness, cooperation and compassion for all.

 We are connected in a global community, a unique culture, comprised of folks who have taken this stance in the world, with all its joys and challenges, shared experience and purpose, and common internal contradictions and tensions. Wildly diverse though it is, the worldwide activist community shares behaviors, priorities, beliefs, attitudes, joys, rituals, humor, history, principles, ideologies, role models, vocabulary, and more. All this makes us a distinct culture.

Our culture is shaped by the inescapable tension of living life in the belly of the Beast we are working to transform. The core of our culture is shaped by this conflict, this . This does not mean that others do not oppose injustice; in fact, most people do. The difference is that the very essence of our culture is the collective purpose and work of transforming the status quo, putting us as a community in basic basic contradiction with the way things are.

Which is why I can't stand activists!

And which is why we need to protect, them!


Why care about our culture?

What does this basic contradiction, this inescapable conflict between the activist community and the unjust social structure in which we function, mean for our movements and our lives? How does it shape us, our experience and our work? And why spend time “navel gazing” at our own community when we have so much urgent work to do in the world?

And why should we spend time on this? We already have enough to do! Especially activists!

Well…it is not exaggerating to say that the future of our world depends on activist work. Whether we acknowledge or are even conscious of it, we’re all counting on activists to organize, inspire, push, harangue, hassle and hustle enough of the rest of us into action to stop annihilation by nuclear, climate, economic and other catastrophes. Centuries of human history indicate that we are unlikely to “naturally evolve” into a society of equality and sanity in our dealings with one another and with our environment. We need to actively make this happen, which means activists mobilizing people to stand up to the Beast and successfully vanquish it.

The Beast knows this, and will stop at nothing to keep it from happening. Its best chance, it knows, is to target activists. Even when repression is random and rampant, it is always most fierce and focused on activists.

The more collective consciousness activists develop and share about the nature of our culture, community, experience and specific challenges we face as activists, the better we can protect, defend, love and support each other, broaden our reach, fight our adversaries, overcome our divisions, and strengthen ourselves to wage this indispensable fight.

Let’s make our culture loving, friendly and caring for the whole global activist community so we can all battle the Beast together in strength and (relative) harmony, and save the world.

FRCC: Friend-relative-comrade-colleague. This acronym attempts to summarize the complex, deep relationship among activists.


Interactive Links

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