Creating Political Change: activism and slacktivism

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Yesterday I wrote about trying to be active in lobbying the government even while looking after my children. Writing letters, supporting organizations, learning about the issues, participating in protests and rallies and talking to my local politicians are all things that can fit into my schedule. Yet do they do anything? Are we simply spinning our wheels in vain? Where is the border between productive political, social or environmental activism and slacktavism the feel-good accomplish-nothing activism done from the armchair? What is useful and what isn’t? Of course I don’t know the answers.

Hal Niedzviecki writes in Hello, I’m Special: How Individually Became the New Conformity that:

Pseudo-rebellion blurs into passivity. We start to think that seeing a film or videotaping a protest is is the same thing as actually striking a blow against the evil corporation, tantamount to rejecting the latest ultra-convenient polluting apparatus in favor of some benevolent alternative. Again and again, we see our cultural products actually incorporating this idea of rebellion against the corporate status-quo into the storyline.

The same sort of idea that pseudo-rebellion is useless appears in a short video clip made of a Derrick Jensen speech comparing the tactics of the Star Wars Rebels with the way environmentalists act. In some ways the comparison is extreme. In the real world there is not one evil emperor and one deadly machine with an amazing flaw. Instead we have a web of laws and policies that we are told our livelihoods depend upon but which create huge environmental and social injustices. There isn’t an easy “put bomb here” answer even if a person was willing to go that way. Nor are we creating a movie, so it doesn’t matter if people are on the edges of the seats or bored out of our mind as long as we somehow find a way to create a more just, equitable, sustainable society. Yet there’s some good commentary about the way activists work built into the video clip.

One of the things that really hits me is the end line about success being measured as getting some press. Working with my antipoverty group that is one interm measure of success. When we do a stunt or hold a rally, do we get press? Yet that is only the interm measure. The bigger question is can we get a specific policy reversed, or when dealing with individual situations can we get that specific person the funding they require. Those are the real victories.  There have been some real successes recently for many Canadian activist organizations. One of the victories that spring to my mind is the stopping of the mega quarry.

I hear people talk about how we need a big change. We need to transform the systems. We need to transform the way we talk about things and we need to transform the rules and regulations. Occasionally I hear people say that fighting these little battles is pointless. That it amounts to whack-a-mole efforts, where whenever one project or bad policy is beaten down another one pops up. Yet I think that we plant a forest by planting trees. We create the big picture change we want by working on one little change after another and as we work to change policies or projects we are also changing the way people talk and think about things.

We need to create change one step at a time. Here’s a sort of counter video to the above, an argument about how the nonviolent methods can create change.

59 Cent Campaign demands the Canadian government restore the full Interm Federal Health Program for refugees.One easy fun thing to do is send a Christmas card a part of the 59 Cent Campaign and demand the Canadian government restore the full Interm Federal Health Program for refugees. Back when the program was being cut the government said their new version would still cover all “legitimate refugees” and no one would be harmed by the cuts. Now there’s stories from the last few months of people who were denied treatments. There was a man with cancer who was told he doesn’t qualify for chemotherapy. Thankfully the province stepped in to cover the costs. The federal government continues to lie and say they are providing to refugees the same as the average citizen gets, but it is a lie. They are providing that to some refugees. To others they are providing care only when their disease is contagious.  I suspect that participating in campaigns like this one do two things. They show that you as an individual are interested in the issue, but they also show that you are influenced by the campaign, which helps to give the campaign more credibility and clout.

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