Confronting ineffectiveness as an activist


in Politics, Psychology, The environment

Conversing with my friend Nada about in-group dynamics, the psychological property of agreeableness, and group cohesion, she raised the matter of the difficult psychological disjoint between the change which activists desperately desire in the world and the practical realization that they generally aren’t achieving it. There have been moments of triumph for some social justice campaigns (enfranchisement of women, gay marriage, banning leaded gasoline) but most activists at most times have not experienced major policy change of the sort they are seeking.

When confronted with this ineffectiveness, people are provoked to respond emotionally and also (somewhat separately) to consider their situation analytically. Emotionally, frustration, anger, and self-righteousness may be the inputs from which defence mechanisms emerge or are maintained. Analytically, an activist in an ineffective campaign may be driven to consider how their movement or situation differs from others that seem more capable of affecting policy outcomes. Activist organizations tend to be informal, volunteer driven, with high turnover in people involved, few accountability mechanisms, and with modes of democratic decision-making which may seem to both produce poor decisions and leave people feeling unhappy. They are often up against status quo opponents with paid professional staffs, more formal decision-making structures which are more often seen as legitimate by insiders, money, and privileged contact with policy makers. The contrast can leave activists both dispirited and despairing about their odds of success.

These unpleasant feelings arguably flow from a faulty assumption which is nonetheless tied to the very idea of being an activist: the belief, or at least the hope, that you can actually make a difference. For a problem as massive as climate change, there is no necessary reason to think that non-violent grassroots organizing can change enough behaviour globally to avoid the outcomes which we most fear. Similarly, there is no reason to think that a hierarchy-based or violent approach would necessarily be effective.

Psychologically, this also seems tied to cognitive dissonance, which I think is most meaningfully defined as a situation in which a person’s beliefs and behaviours are contradictory, and where the tendency is most often for them to adjust their beliefs to match their behaviours than to do the converse. If the behaviour is ‘doing activism’ and the belief is that this will change the world, at least a little bit, we can ponder the psychological response to being shown that your belief isn’t presently well supported. It may be rational to try something else (go and join the civil service, run for political office, try to influence people through your writing, become a charismatic leader in a new organization), and at least some of the time people do these things. More often, perhaps, the response is to find a way to believe that you are making a difference, perhaps by ‘raising awareness’ or something equally woolly and intractable. Another option is either a secular or theological faith that somehow in the long term the success you seek will be achieved (“the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice”). It’s clear why this works as a psychological defence mechanism, since it mitigates the despair of seeing the threat that motivates you alongside little or even negative progress away from disaster. What’s less clear is whether such psychological defence mechanisms are effective in terms of maximizing the odds that your campaign actually succeeds by encouraging smart choices, effective teamwork, and other practical inputs to success.

I don’t think the question of how activists should confront ineffectiveness has a clear answer. Personally, I think ‘the power of positive thinking’ is dangerous nonsense that probably reduces most people’s odds of success in most situations (though it is likely better than utter despair, if that’s your only other option). Perhaps something like an emotionally-aware version of the rational ideal is possible: a hybrid mode of self-consideration in which you both recognize the psychological bases which are necessary to keep going as an activist, while also remaining capable of dispassionate consideration of which options for behaviour are actually open to you and whether any of them can advance your cause. As mentioned already, it’s totally logically possible that no political movement can prevent absolute climate change catastrophe at this point. Whether or not that’s true, however, for those who are determined to fight on, some sort of psychologically-aware strategic planning seems like a not-entirely-impossible objective.

A further challenge is applying any such model of personal reflection in the social context of an activist organization. For example, presenting totally valid and well-justified points made about strategy may undermine social cohesion to the extent that the group becomes ineffective or falls apart. At the root, activists collectively involved in a campaign are allies rather than friends and must somehow maintain healthy relations as a route to collective effectiveness. Pulling this off while everyone is erecting and reinforcing personal defence mechanisms, and while huge uncertainties about which courses of action offer the best chances of success, is a challenge of such a magnitude that it may itself contribute to how rarely activists achieve meaningful and durable progress.

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{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Milan August 29, 2016 at 6:34 pm
Milan August 29, 2016 at 7:29 pm

This episode of the new Warm Regards podcast is very much worth the time it takes to listen, and has relevance to this discussion (mp3).

These climate experts are of the view that keeping climate change to less than 1.5–2.0 ˚C is no longer possible through emissions reductions, and could only be achieved by geoengineering.

They have a lot of interesting things to say about the science of projecting climate change impacts, and how that connects with ongoing political debates.

I listen to a lot of climate change coverage, and this is quite unusually worthy of attention.

alena August 30, 2016 at 10:31 am

This is a very thoughtful and thought-provoking entry. The dilemmas you describe for activists are imposing and relentless. The effects of activist endeavors are elusive and slow. It is enough to discourage the most passionate and dedicated person and yet without such people, nothing would ever change. Global warming has become central news around the world and people accept that it may be irreversible and unstoppable. Every day, individuals and groups are challenging the status quo through information, education and action. There are just too many of us and we all want to live, eat and attain a certain quality of life.
I do not know if we can make enough difference to avert catastrophic warming, but the efforts of activists and ordinary people are still significant and inspiring. There are so many often conflicting factors and this makes the cause much more complex than slavery (that was just wrong) or tobacco (that was harmful to health). I do believe that activism must come from many different sources or it is in danger of being marginalized like the Occupy movement.

Tristan Laing August 30, 2016 at 4:01 pm

If “raising awareness”, or attempting to influence public opinion, were so wolly and pointless, then all this talk of the power of the PR industry – both in its real size (14 billion dollars globally according to the “Holmes Report”), and it’s ideological power (pretty much all major political parties and corporations employ them).

This seems to be a contradiction in your presentation here – on the one hand, you recognize the power of raising awareness when you speak about the disparity of resources between activists and the status quo which can employ highly professional PR firms, and on the other hand, you seem quite negative about the idea that raising awareness, on its own, can be called meaningful.

As an individual activist, you can surely do a great deal. You can influence at minimum the opinion of your friends, and more than that, the opinions of many others around you. The difficulty that I see, or rather the problem is that we don’t see generally speaking, those changes in opinion having impact.

At this point I’m just speculating, but I have done a lot of activism and I wonder if there is a kind of fundamental difference between two aspects to it, one being “raising awareness” – we might better call this, changing people’s opinions. And the other is utilizing those changed opinions to achieve political victories, i.e. divestment resolutions, etc. In some sense, I feel drawn to call the first part “activism” and the second part “politics”. I wonder if this distinction would do anything to help clarify disorder and delusion/self-deception that, as you rightly point out, can become dominant in organizing groups.

Milan August 30, 2016 at 4:53 pm

I find the idea of “raising awareness” is usually a consolation used when an effort has failed to produce any identifiable practical results. For instance, you hold a march or protest that is totally ignored by the people who you are trying to influence.

“Raising awareness” or “public relations” is meaningful when it changes behaviour, and then it’s the behaviour change and not the awareness that matters. This can be seen in the distinction between, for instance, anti-smoking measures known to be ineffective, like exhorting people not to smoke via TV ads, and others that have been shown to reduce actual smoking, like pictures of diseased tissue on cigarette packaging or mandatory plain packaging.

We have some pretty clear metrics for evaluating success in climate change activism: are new fossil fuel infrastructure projects being built? What about appropriate infrastructure, like improved energy efficiency and renewable energy? What’s happening to the atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases?

By most of these measures, there is some success, relative to a case in which absolutely nothing was being done. At the same time, as the podcast above nicely illustrates, what we are doing is nowhere near enough to stop the problem from getting worse and worse, to the point it eventually threatens all human prosperity and civilization itself. In the face of that, making people briefly contemplate climate issues in ways that don’t alter their behaviour is a waste of resources, and strategies that only or mostly produce that result need to be rejected.

Tristan Laing August 31, 2016 at 1:01 pm

I don’t think it makes sense to evaluate success in changing public opinion by success at changing those decisions made by institutions which are influenced by public opinion. I believe this for two reasons. First, because the translation of public opinion into decisions made by institutions is not direct, and second because powerful institutions are interested in Public Opinion directly, not only insofar as it impacts their ability to make decisions. Powerful institutions literally pay polling agencies huge amounts of money, all the time, to tell them what public opinion is. They do so because they want to be able to pre-act rather than re-act in relation to situations where their decisions conflict with public opinion. Perhaps one of the reasons public opinion seems so weak is precisely because powerful institutions are so skilled at pre-acting to prevent apparent clashes between their decisions and public opinion.

Collapsing effectiveness at changing public opinion to effectiveness at altering decisions impacted by it might sound like good pragmatism, but I think it sets unrealistic standards for success, especially interim success. Sure, it is a danger that activist groups can re-define effective failure as success, but it is also a danger that by defining aspects of success as simply part of overall failure, the work will feel meaningless. Ultimately, I don’t think low-resolution (i.e. birds eye view) pragmatism is the best materialist analysis of the situation of an activist.

Milan August 31, 2016 at 4:19 pm

Nada’s comment was less about how to judge the effectiveness of various campaigning tactics, and more about the psychological impact of the perceived lack of success among activists.

Clearly, one set of defence mechanisms are based on deliberate efforts to interpret all outcomes optimistically, drawing attention to some incremental change in public opinion, or saying “At least we tried”.

A bit of that is probably healthy for both individuals and groups but, as in many other contexts, this kind of deliberate optimism risks spawning complacency, or leading to too much effort being expended on ineffective tactics (see, for example, Micah White’s criticism of big marches).

Tristan Laing August 31, 2016 at 6:37 pm

Well, if that’s the way you want to take the discussion, then I’d say that “raising awareness”, while certainly it can be gestured at in a self-deluding manner, is also something that can be rigorously evaluated. So we need to make a distinction between serious efforts to influence public opinion and the consideration of the success of those efforts independently of their immediate translation into political victories on the one hand, and the appeal to the discourse of “raising awareness” without any real evaluation of one’s impact on public opinion in order to interpret a political failure optimistically.

This conversation encourages me to recall the moment when the Graduate Student Union at the University of Toronto voted to endorse BDS. This was a political move, various strategic meetings were held leading up to time of the general meeting. What we were doing was capitalizing on changes to public opinion (specifically amongst U of T graduate students) which had already been accomplished over several years. However, before the vote, we honestly did not know what the public opinion was, and some of us were very hesitant to bring it forward to a vote for fear of failing and have it come off negatively for us. In the end, the vote passed with about 95% of the votes in favour of endorsing the BDS program.

Maybe one of the solutions to the above mentioned danger of self-delusion is to have a rigorous and extensive modelling of how various segments of public opinion can be politically translated into local victories, and to focus on those victories which are concrete measurements of change to public opinion at the same time as victories which will be politically effective.

Tristan Laing August 31, 2016 at 6:42 pm

I found White’s criticism of big marches a bit lacking given the fact that Chomsky had criticized the marches while they were going on explaining why they would not be effective because they did not learn the lessons of the 1960s. It’s pretty much the reverse of White’s critique, although it’s similar in that activists failed because they believed they were doing what folks in the 60s did – the difference is, for Chomsky, folks were actually not doing what folks in the 60s did. A single day of big marches doesn’t endanger capitalism. However, ongoing, continuous mobilization, with demands for more direct democracy, that does. The analysis I’ve heard in Chomsky and elsewhere about why the 60s activism was effective in relation to Vietnam is that there was a percieved need to bring troops home to quell domestic disturbances. The large anti-Iraq war marches did not create domestic unrest requiring significant troop deployments. And even the most significant symbolic state resistance, i.e. such as French and Canadian refusal to participate fully in the invasion, went no where near far enough to stop the war. I don’t remember seeing anyone demanding that our state offer security guarantees to Iraq (although probably some serious French anti-war activists might have gone this far because their republican sensibilities tend to endorse the possibility of a positive role for the state, even amongst anarchists).

Tristan Laing August 31, 2016 at 11:38 pm

Thinking about this more, I think that my response to this is basically, it’s a category error. What it means for activism to be effective is that people are activated, i.e. opinions changed, and ready for action. But what it means to be politically effective is something quite different, you have to engage in the real dynamic of power, and activated folks are basically a resource that you can draw on. Just look at the way Erdogen activated his supporters and used them as a resource to prevent the coup in Turkey from succeeding. The thing is “organizers” are often engaged in both activism and politics. If they confuse these two roles, which is to say if they confuse influencing public opinion with the achievement of political transformation enabled by those changes to public opinion, I suspect they could not help but fail to act in a strategic manner.

alena September 1, 2016 at 11:40 am

What an interesting discussion. I think that Tristan is right that activism has at least two roles. Activists can influence people around them and make considerable changes in attitudes and even in their environment. To make big changes, it is necessary to mobilize many players and to prove to them that a certain position is no longer viable or justifiable. Both stages of the process are critical. I think that the hardest part is to reach consensus in a democratic way.

Milan September 1, 2016 at 12:27 pm

As noted here, democracy is actually an alternative to creating a consensus – it’s a way to move forward when it’s not possible to get everyone to agree.

There are many deep disagreements among those who want to avoid dangerous climate change, including whether market mechanisms can help or whether capitalism must be rejected; which energy sources can actually be deployed quickly enough to avoid the worst impacts; how aligned the climate movement should be with other environmental and social justice struggles; etc.

There’s never going to be consensus on this, either among activists or within the general population. If we’re to avoid catastrophic climate change we will need to do it in the absence of consensus.

. September 2, 2016 at 12:07 am

Democracy is the process by which people choose the man who’ll get the blame.

– Bertrand Russell

alena September 2, 2016 at 10:33 am

I think that some of it will happen by necessity as in China and through people’s demands and active resistance as with the aboriginal people. Everyone is aware now.

. October 6, 2016 at 12:05 am

For decades, fossil fuel corporations have captured the political process and thwarted climate policy. Grassroots climate action spreads, but not quickly enough to out-flank corporate influence. Meanwhile, the climate crisis grows more urgent.

In this context, the fossil fuel divestment movement sprang to life. It aims to challenge corporate power, achieve climate action, and grow the climate movement. Divestment stigmatizes the fossil fuel industry in order to degrade its political influence and legitimacy. With corporations on the defensive, opportunities for meaningful climate policy can emerge. Divestment also provides the foundation for broad-based inclusive action. Everyone is part of an institution with something to divest—from an alma mater’s endowment to a city or state pension fund. The fossil fuel divestment movement is about more than moving investors’ money.

. February 3, 2017 at 6:49 pm

Resistance evokes the struggle against totalitarianism, conveying personal defiance and official powerlessness at the same time. So what does it mean to apply that word in an ostensibly democratic system? If you’ve lost at the ballot box but aren’t seeking full-blown revolution, what are the most useful forms of political action? If “yes” seems impossible but “no” seems insufficient, what fills the space between?

. February 6, 2017 at 4:32 pm

Midlife brings strange changes to us all. After a lifetime of viewing demonstrations from the other side of the barricades, I was one of the many who admired the orderly commitment and resolution of the women’s march on Washington the day after President Trump’s inauguration. Yet my admiration is mixed with worry. As I step through the police lines, I bring a message with me: Your demonstrations are engineered to fail. They didn’t stop the Iraq war. They won’t stop Donald Trump.

With the rarest exceptions—and perhaps the January 21 demonstration will prove to be one—left-liberal demonstrations are exercises in catharsis, the release of emotions. Their operating principle is self-expression, not persuasion. They lack the means, and often the desire, to police their radical fringes, with the result that it’s the most obnoxious and even violent behavior that produces the most widely shared and memorable images of the event. They seldom are aimed at any achievable goal; they rarely leave behind any enduring program of action or any organization to execute that program. Again and again, their most lasting effect has been to polarize opinion against them—and to empower the targets of their outrage. And this time, that target is a president hungering for any excuse to repress his opponents. Look at how Trump positioned the University of California—whose out-numbered police battled to defend the speech rights of one of the most provocative and obnoxious of Trump’s minions—as a target for retaliation.

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