Why We Should Stop Using the Word “Activist”

Contesting power isn’t a hobby or a subculture—it’s a collective project pervading all facets of our lives.

Jonathan Matthew Smucker May 30, 2017

(Photo by Iryna Kuznetsova, design by Rachel K Dooley)

One way that pro­gres­sive polit­i­cal groups cre­ate bar­ri­ers between them­selves and soci­ety is through the con­struc­tion of a rel­a­tive­ly new cat­e­go­ry of polit­i­cal actor: the activist.

Is there any reason to use a label that prevents people from considering anything we do or say?

The word activist was first used about a cen­tu­ry ago to describe those Swedes who advo­cat­ed for Swe­den to aban­don neu­tral­i­ty and enter World War I on the side of the Kaiser. But as it is now used, the term became part of our lex­i­con in the 1960s. Today, activist car­ries impor­tant mean­ings absent in words that described ear­li­er man­i­fes­ta­tions of col­lec­tive action. Clas­si­fi­ca­tions like abo­li­tion­ist, pop­ulist, suf­fragette, union­ist or social­ist all ref­er­enced spe­cif­ic con­tents. Activist, on the oth­er hand, is a con­tent­less” label that tra­vers­es polit­i­cal issues and social movements.

Neg­a­tive stereo­types about activists can neg­a­tive­ly affect opin­ions about a giv­en polit­i­cal issue once the issue is asso­ci­at­ed with activism. Con­se­quent­ly, because the term repels many peo­ple, it cog­ni­tive­ly blocks their entry into col­lec­tive action.

Yet, some peo­ple are attract­ed to activism for that very rea­son. Many activists take pride in activism part­ly because it is an expres­sion of their will­ing­ness to do some­thing that is unpop­u­lar. Indeed, some come to see their own mar­gin­al­iza­tion as a badge of hon­or, as they carve out a rad­i­cal oppo­si­tion­al niche identity.

This clus­ter­ing of activists into silos fits into a broad­er trend in advanced cap­i­tal­ist nations toward greater indi­vid­u­al­is­tic self-expres­sion and less civic par­tic­i­pa­tion. With this back­drop, it is as if activism has mor­phed into a spe­cif­ic iden­ti­ty that cen­ters on a hob­by — some­thing akin to being a ski­er or a the­ater per­son or a food­ie — rather than a civic or polit­i­cal respon­si­bil­i­ty that nec­es­sar­i­ly tra­vers­es groups and inter­ests. In a soci­ety that is self-select­ing into ever more spe­cif­ic microag­gre­ga­tions, it makes sense that activism itself could become one such lit­tle niche — that activism would become its own par­tic­u­lar com­mu­ni­ty of inter­est that self-select­ing indi­vid­ual activists join. The prob­lem is that, when it comes to chal­leng­ing entrenched pow­er, we need more than lit­tle nich­es and self­s­e­lec­tors. We need much larg­er swaths of society.

A fledg­ling move­ment that attempts to attract only indi­vid­u­als as indi­vid­u­als, one at a time, will nev­er grow fast enough to effect big sys­temic change. Pow­er­ful polit­i­cal chal­lengers have nev­er built their oper­a­tions entire­ly from scratch, but rather by means of politi­ciz­ing, acti­vat­ing and align­ing exist­ing social blocs and insti­tu­tions. Par­tic­i­pa­tion in the civ­il rights move­ment, for exam­ple, was hard­ly an indi­vid­ual mat­ter; it tend­ed to arise in rela­tion to already estab­lished mem­ber­ship in com­mu­ni­ties and insti­tu­tions — espe­cial­ly mem­ber­ship in black church­es, his­tor­i­cal­ly black col­leges and chap­ters of the NAACP. In the 1980s, Ralph Reed and oth­er lead­ers of the emer­gent Chris­t­ian Right stud­ied the civ­il rights move­ment and emu­lat­ed its approach, orga­niz­ing whole con­gre­ga­tions. In this way, fun­da­men­tal­ist church­es became a major base of pow­er that has main­tained the hege­mo­ny of a right-wing align­ment between Wall Street and social con­ser­v­a­tives for the last few decades.

The Right seems to have learned more lessons of polit­i­cal strat­e­gy from the civ­il rights move­ment than has the lib­er­al Left, which pro­fes­sion­al­ized polit­i­cal involve­ment, pro­duc­ing a pletho­ra of sin­gle-issue, non­prof­it 501©3 orga­ni­za­tions that are pro­hib­it­ed by law from con­test­ing pow­er in the elec­toral are­na and whose mem­ber­ships (if they have mem­bers at all) are, by and large, pas­sive par­tic­i­pants — use­ful most­ly for send­ing donations.

At the same time, the rad­i­cal Left dra­mat­i­cal­ly implod­ed. Many move­ment vet­er­ans were under­stand­ably trau­ma­tized by the repres­sion and inten­si­ty of the 1960s and 1970s. The rem­nant that stayed active cre­at­ed a com­mon nar­ra­tive that con­sist­ed of a con­stel­la­tion of shared mean­ings and ref­er­ence points. New­com­ers to the move­ment” would then ori­ent them­selves toward the cen­ter of that con­stel­la­tion, learn­ing the prop­er rad­i­cal lin­go, which was pro­found­ly out of touch with the lan­guage, world­view and social prac­tice of most Amer­i­cans. Over time, this alien­ation and mar­gin­al­i­ty vis-à-vis Amer­i­can soci­ety became deeply inter­nal­ized in the prac­tices and psy­chol­o­gy of many radicals.

Thus, mod­ern activism has been shaped by both the lib­er­al and the rad­i­cal Left. Ide­al­is­tic, social jus­tice-ori­ent­ed young peo­ple today tend to take for grant­ed that activism as such has always exist­ed — that it is the cat­e­go­ry they must step into in order to take col­lec­tive action. Con­se­quent­ly, most activists fail to ques­tion this construction.

When new activists enter a cul­tur­al space where polit­i­cal activ­i­ty occurs only in a milieu of like-mind­ed activists, the end result is that society’s most ide­al­is­tic and col­lec­tive­ly mind­ed young peo­ple vol­un­tar­i­ly remove them­selves from the insti­tu­tions and social net­works they were best posi­tioned to influ­ence and con­test. The idea that activism occu­pies a spe­cial space unto itself — that it is an activ­i­ty dis­em­bed­ded from the day-to-day lives, cul­tur­al spaces and work­places of most peo­ple in soci­ety — encour­ages activists to check their activism at the door when enter­ing non-activist” spheres. Alter­na­tive­ly, they may proud­ly and defi­ant­ly wear their activism on their sleeves, but more as self-expres­sive fash­ion that dis­tin­guish­es them from the group — and like­ly inoc­u­lates oth­ers against tak­ing them seri­ous­ly — than as part of a gen­uine attempt at strate­gic polit­i­cal engagement.

Nat­u­ral­ly, social jus­tice-ori­ent­ed peo­ple grav­i­tate toward safe spaces where they feel appre­ci­at­ed. The slow work of con­test­ing and trans­form­ing messy every­day spaces is, how­ev­er, the essence of grass­roots polit­i­cal orga­niz­ing. When we do not con­test, from with­in, the cul­tures, beliefs, sym­bols and nar­ra­tives of the exist­ing insti­tu­tions and social net­works that we are part of, we walk away from the resources and latent pow­er embed­ded with­in those insti­tu­tions and net­works. This is not a win­ning tra­jec­to­ry. In exchange for our own shab­by lit­tle activist club­house, we give away the farm.

Should we then aban­don the activist” label? A bet­ter ques­tion would be: Is there any com­pelling rea­son to per­sist in using a label that inoc­u­lates so many peo­ple against us and our mes­sages? If this word effec­tive­ly func­tions as a cog­ni­tive road­block that pre­vents most peo­ple from con­sid­er­ing any­thing we do or say, while also excus­ing sym­pa­thiz­ers (who don’t con­sid­er them­selves activists”) from join­ing us, then iner­tia is not a good enough rea­son to hold on to such a dis­ad­van­ta­geous label.

Aban­don­ing the label, how­ev­er, will only get us so far. It is more impor­tant that we break out of the cul­tur­al niche that the label has pre­scribed. Our work is not to build from scratch a spe­cial sphere that hous­es our social­ly enlight­ened iden­ti­ties (and delu­sions). Our work is, rather, to politi­cize every­day spaces; and to weave pol­i­tics and col­lec­tive action into the fab­ric of society.

Fred­er­ick Dou­glass famous­ly said, Pow­er con­cedes noth­ing with­out a demand.” We can right­eous­ly shout slo­gans at the halls of pow­er until we’re blue in the face, but in the long run we have to take respon­si­bil­i­ty for con­struct­ing the col­lec­tive pow­er need­ed to make our demands potent.

This essay was adapt­ed from Hege­mo­ny How-To: A Roadmap for Rad­i­cals (AK Press)

Jonathan Matthew Smuck­er is a soci­ol­o­gy doc­tor­al stu­dent at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley, a polit­i­cal orga­niz­er and strate­gist, and the direc­tor of Beyond the Choir, a non­prof­it that works to expand the base of social jus­tice organizations.
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