Time to put the adults in charge of activism

For those who identify themselves as Shaivites, the Hindu god Shiva is believed to be the destroyer and creator of all things. Shiva’s powers are critical to the continuance of life and cannot exist in the absence of each other - without creation there is no need for destruction, and without destruction there is no capacity to create.

The necessity of such a relationship holds just true in the physical world as it does in the theoretical construct that we have labelled ‘society’. Fundamental change in society cannot occur without tearing down what came before it. Democracy was born from the ashes of oligarchy. Equality did not occur without the ridding of prejudice. Awareness and engagement cannot transpire without replacing ignorance and detachment. In the absence of Shiva, we rely on the political class to create and destroy the prevailing social paradigm. In return for providing politicians with our money and imprimatur, it is expected they will search for, identify and exhaustively consider the prevailing issues of the day through engaging in a full and frank discussion with the public that will inform the outcome implemented by government.

In the absence of Shiva, we rely on the political class to create and destroy the prevailing social paradigm.

Politicians, however, cannot be relied upon to perform this task on their own, just as we in the public cannot expect to be personally consulted on every thought, hypothesis and theory that is broached. Instead, these roles are often performed by activist groups. As a result of their impassioned interest and position on the social frontline, activists are often the first to shine a light on matters that many would prefer to ignore. Once that light is bright enough, it sparks public debate and forces the government to respond with a decision to either preserve or reform the status quo. In theory, the road to reform is straight and smooth. Activists identify the issue, put it on the political agenda and then work with politicians to engage with the public and plot a path forward. As we know, this is rarely the case.

Inevitably the initial movers on the issue will be in the minority. Few reforms are considered mainstream when they are first mooted. History shows that what starts as a cause of the fringe can eventually becomes the cause of the centre. Think of climate change and gay marriage. Both were once the pet projects of the progressive left, derided by the right and the centre, but are now accepted as orthodoxy by the majority in most developed countries. Through the use of evidence based arguments and nuanced persuasive tactics, the widely-held views of the past have been banished to the periphery.

While activists are accomplished at being disruptive, many falter when the time comes to be constructive. Brash protest rallies, speeches filled with hyperbole and confected anger are wonderful for getting the attention of the masses. But thinking these tactics also have a place when the time comes to discuss, debate and negotiate is a strategic miscalculation on the part of activists. Once you hold the attention of many, do not waste it. You need to know when to flip the switch from circus to serious. The human psyche is not predisposed to abrupt internal changes, particularly when to do so implies a person’s long-held values and attitudes were misguided. It is not simply a case of telling people they are wrong and therefore must immediately adapt to a new reality, throwing in the risk of having vicious epithets hurled at them in the street if they fail to do so. It takes time to remould a person’s outlook. It takes even longer to remould an entire society’s.

Unfortunately for those who are relying on reform, evidence based arguments and nuanced persuasive tactics are all too often left sitting on the bench, while an angry, loud, pigheaded oaf runs around the field scoring goal after goal against his own team. When the time taken to win a public debate can stretch into decades, this sort of behaviour represents a setback many a cause can ill-afford. In far too many cases, when the activist’s views are not shared by the masses, they don’t engage in sensible, moderate discussions that engage the majority of the public who hold the middle ground. They instead browbeat the heathen non-believers with dogma, or treat them with the disdain you reserve for an ignoramus. Israel is compared to Nazi Germany. People who question climate change are likened to Holocaust deniers.  Those who adhere to the definition of marriage set by their ecclesiastical hierarchy are called bigots and homophobes. This might fire up the true believers, but it is hardly going to cause people to reassess their long-held beliefs, never mind provide the kind of political cover governments require to undertake major reforms.

Politics, and by extension activism, has become a zero sum game. Any opportunity to smack the opposition is seized with vigour. Any compromise is viewed as a defeat and rejected out of hand. Activists cannot play a role in shaping a new social paradigm if they alienate a majority of the public and politicians. To bring about a change in government policy, the proponents of an idea need to accept a pragmatic position that is embraced by the political centre. Pandering to a core constituency for the sake of policy purity and inflicting pain on your opponents, rather than making the difficult choice to lead those who dwell on the fringe to an implementable centrist position, may be good short term politics, but it is death for long lasting social change.

Activists cannot play a role in shaping a new social paradigm if they alienate a majority of the public and politicians.

Activism can and should be a positive force in politics. But in their fervour, many activists entrench the very positions they are trying to recast, estranging those they need to win over and marginalising their own supporters in the eyes of the public. Unless cooler heads and strategic minds prevail, activists will only serve to fragment society when success demands a need to unite it. The concept of compromise must become intrinsic to them. A meeting place does exist in this middle ground and leadership will be required to guide the people who don’t want to find it. To be our society’s true embodiment of Shiva, activists cannot be content to simply tear the house down. They must recognise they also have to help us rebuild a better one in its place.