There are quiet a few problems I have with how people define activism. Whether it’s the usual liberal feel-good activism, or the so called “radical” groups who rely on different tactics in order to enact their activism (for example, hiding behind academic jargon, using overly colorful language that the people who are being ‘saved’ often don’t understand). Here are some of my main problems with activism/activists:
- The feel-good activism: This type of arm-chair activism relies on the happiness of the activist. This activist can support capitalism/uphold companies who exploit their workers as long as they promise a band-aid solution (e.g. TOMS “One for One” initiative which promises that “when you buy a pair of TOMS Shoes, you’re also helping improve the health, education and well-being of a child." and the "One Day Without Shoes" movement for name a few). This activism, the corporations-for-the-people relies on band-aid "solutions" without challenging the structural (imperial) hierarchies this activism functions under. Moreover, the activist here engages in action such as choosing not to wear shoes for a day to show their sympathy, understanding nothing but how cheap and easy their feel-good-activism is.
- Western Individualism and the notion of ‘empowerment’: This type of activist uses the idea of activism to push for personal empowerment and enrichment of character rather than challenging structural imbalances of power. Although individual empowerment can be political, when activism turns into, again, a feel-good gathering event they become problematic. As Lierra Keith said “activism has turned into one big group therapy session. It doesn’t matter what we accomplish—what matters is how we feel about it. The goal of the action isn’t to change the material balance of power, it’s to feel “empowered”… This rerouting of the goal from political change to inner change is the reaction of both a spoiled, self-absorbed people, and the utterly desperate, desperate to do something, anything.”
- Power relationship between activists and those who are being represented: Often activism relies on the power imbalance between activists/the represented people — there needs to be voiceless victims for overzealous activist to engage with them and their identities. These activists are anyone from those who keep the power intact via academic jargon to the structurally-privileged who use their privileged status to ‘help’ people, however,there is a need for the people these activists represent to exist in confusion/gray area. Rather than eradicating it, this type of activism relies on various imbalances of power.
- Activist-as-Identity: This activist treats activism as an identity — one is an “activist” and not “engaging in activism”. This type of activism relies on identity politics, on who can/is and who isn’t/cannot be an “Activist” rather than engaging in practice of it. Activism becomes a mere identity rather than a set of praxis (the process through which various theories/ideas are practiced). This activism often relies on all other types of activism mentioned above: the feel-good activism, the personal empowerment, and the use of power over others. Moreover, this type of activism “excludes those who do not speak the language of elites and thus reinforces social relations of domination. Educated elites typically claim that only they are qualified to produce theory and believe that only they can interpret not only their own but everyone else’s experiences. Moreover, educated elites often use this belief to uphold their own privilege.”
Just as Edward Said wrote in Culture and Imperialism "theory is taught so as to make the student believe that he or she can become a Marxist, a feminist, an Afrocentrist, or a deconstructionist with about the same effort and commitment required in choosing items from a menu.” Activism is made into a menu in which people can choose day-long/feel-good actions to undergo. The identity as an “activist” requires no commitment, attention, or real change — being an activist becomes a mere activity.