Grass-roots activism has been a powerful force in American-history. However, there are certain common problems with activists’ arguments, which, if not obliterating that cause’s chance of being taken seriously, prevent *me* from taking them seriously. Every organization that exhibits one of these warning signs is not necessarily foaming at the mouth, but has blind spots and should be approached with caution.
Darn Commies! (c) Paramount Pictures & Lucasfilm
Persecution Doctrine is the belief that people/the establishment are actively persecuting a cause. But exactly what is persecution? Merriam-Webster defines “persecute” as
1: to treat (someone) cruelly or unfairly especially because of race or religious or political beliefs
2: to constantly annoy or bother (someone)
Often, however, no evidence of constant harassment or unfair treatment is presented. Nor does such evidence prove that either viewpoint is in the right. It only suggests that one side finds debate threatening. However, if said cause wishes to proceed in this vein anyway, I find their arguments more convincing if they document a substantial number of concrete examples of how the organization/specific people have been harassed or focus their argument on things the organization has done, rather than ways it has been disenfranchised.
Squelching Debate. Ironically, the people who complain that their viewpoint has not been given a fair hearing often deny the opposition the same thing. This may take the form of deleting criticizing comments or banning commentators from web-page. Debate suppression may take the form of ad hominem attack, building straw-men, or bulverism. Indeed, if these organizations actually believe that their opponents are “haters” whose viewpoints are dictated by the “establishment” one begins to understand their persecution doctrine. However, the correct viewpoint will not be injured by answering the opposing arguments, and will be more respected for it.
Excessive Adherence to/Refusal to Acknowledge Authorities is another warning sign. One may disagree with the authorities, but to do so, one must present reasons, and one’s own authoritative voices. Or activists may attempt to cover their back by only citing particular authorities without addressing personal experience or opposing arguments (See Squelching Debate). The potential activist should realize who their authorities are, determine whether that authority applies, and present challenges to and alternative viewpoints to their own.
Excessive Attention to Marketing need not signal duplicity, but it has been used to “crowd-out” bad stories. To establish credibility, one might address these bad stories openly, and without generalization. They won’t be as apt to pop up later.
Fear-Mongering is used as a recruiting technique. Unfortunately, these fears often rely on unproven assumptions or there are alternate means of preventing the feared outcome. To make these strategies more effective, one should ensure the feared outcomes are direct consequences of your cause’s failure, rather than one-thing-leads-to-another scenarios.
Refusal to Compromise or Leave Opponents an Honorable Out commonly prevents amicable agreements. For example, after WWI, the French insisted that the Germans shoulder the bulk of the war debt and accept responsibility for the war. Regardless on your opinion of whether the French were justified, the Germans never would have taken such an agreement had they any choice, and Hitler’s rhetoric at the beginning of WWII highlighted showing the world the superiority of the Aryan race. Policy change is essentially a treaty, so I believe in giving your opponent a way to come out of a skirmish with dignity intact. For example, Germany could have given up Alsace-Lorraine in exchange for debt forgiveness or trade agreements or something else, which might have allowed the new German administration (over which France had just become dominant) to remain in office where France could exert its sway.
Partial Falsehoods fall under the umbrella of intellectual dishonesty (unless, of course, there’s no way one could have known the truth). Activism is all about morals. What are yours?
Poor Spelling and Grammar does not imply poor reasoning skill, but look at it this way. If you can’t be bothered to proof-read or hire an editor, than why should I give you money? Quite probably, you don’t have an accountant either. If you don’t care about your cause enough to discuss it in an educated way, than why should I care?
Excessive Anger is both one of the most detrimental and most difficult problems to cope with. If you didn’t believe in this cause, then you wouldn’t be an activist. Yet anger clouds thinking and allows the opposition (if it exists) to write-off your supports as a bunch of frothing at the mouth idiots. Rather one might formulate with possible retorts and ways to address them in a professional manner.
While these warning signs are present in a number of popular activist causes, I believe that they are the reason a lot of causes haven’t gone further: the organizers refuse to address people who value complete logical arguments or the organizers have not thought about why the opposition might oppose the movement or whether the movement’s goals are even viable.
While I find these characteristics troubling, they do not imply that an activist cause is necessarily wrong. There are some causes I support which display some of these red flags. In addition, there are many opposing outlooks on this issue. In researching some of the rhetoric out there, I stumbled across a post opining that youth activism is actually too “safe”, politically correct, cool-headed, and dependent on authority. While I agree that government-funded activism isn’t a good idea, my gripe with activism is that it is too emotionally driven, and the public makes decisions based on fear, rather than reason, while the activists place the appearance of righteousness over reason.