Activism has played an extremely beneficial and important role throughout the history of mankind.
It has helped us to protect the environment, preserve endangered species, promote gender and racial equality, support sexual freedom, override dictatorships, end slavery, prevent abuse of the innocent, and many other important issues we have faced.
There is no doubt that activism is a healthy, necessary and even vital force for peace, safety, preservation and equality. It is also obvious that activists are often compassionate, empathetic and passionate people.
Activists are inspiring. Activists are revolutionary. Activists are necessary for the harmony of this planet.
But activists can also be elitist and bigoted. Activists can be emotionally misguided. Activists can be dogmatic and forceful.
While the activist movements that exist in our world today are undoubtedly valuable and worthy, there is also a very real and very obvious “dark side” of activism that we’ll explore today.
Are You a Reactionist?
In a quiet way, I consider myself an activist, an activist of everything that promotes freedom and beneficial growth, both inside and outside of ourselves. But I wasn’t always what I would consider an “activist.” For a large portion of my life I have been what I personally dub as a “reactionist.”
What is a reactionist, you might be wondering? A reactionist is essentially a person who channels their anger towards the suffering and injustices of the world in an unproductive, even toxic way. In other words, they “react.”
Reactionists haven’t yet learned to harness their anger in ways that truly support their causes, often times jeopardizing, undermining and even sabotaging their own efforts – often unconsciously.
There are a lot of reactionists in this world which, although have good intentions, tend to let their righteous indignation severely misguide them. From vegans, to feminists, to animal rights activists, reactionists come in all shapes and forms and span across every culture.
Of course, it can be argued that we are human after all. Most of us who feel passionate about anything will sometimes channel our anger in unproductive ways, and this is normal. But activism, by its very nature, also involves a lot of ego, a lot of “I’m right, you’re wrong” which can be dangerous for those not willing to feel mistaken, false and erroneous like those they protest against.
This mindset of self-superiority can create a lot of delusion and blindness against personal faults and blunders. This is not to say that all activists harbor a pompous self-image, but in the field of activism it can especially be a temptation.
So what are the defining characteristics of the reactionist?
- Either/or thinking. E.g. People are either “good or bad,” “for or against you,” “friends or enemies.”
- Elitism, or the belief that you are superior/better due to the group you belong to. E.g. Being a feminist, being a vegan or vegetarian, being a volunteer, being a lobbyist, etc.
- Belligerence, or aggressive and relentlessly argumentative behavior.
- Dogmatism, or forcefully pushing your beliefs and ideals onto others.
- An inability to accept being “wrong,” “misguided,” or less than perfect.
- Self-importance, or the tendency to exaggerate your sense of personal value or importance.
- Critical, attacking, guilt-mongering behavior towards others.
As we can see, all of these characteristics are products of egotism – of deriving your identity and self-esteem from being “more altruistic,” “right” and “better” than others.
The Activist’s Guide to Channeling Anger Productively
Anger in and of itself is not a “good” or “bad” emotion, however, it can be channeled in wise or unwise ways. The reactionist, for example, channels his/her anger in an unwise way, alienating others and sabotaging his/her cause. The activist, on the other hand, channels his/her anger is a wise way that inspires and motivates others, supporting his/her cause.
Below I have composed a mini “Activist Guide” to support positive, productive and truly beneficial change. Self-sabotaging behavior occurs in almost every area of life, and activism isn’t exempt.
1. Rage against the “machine” – not individuals.
Organizations symbolize collective effort, collective beliefs and collective values. When we channel our anger towards institutions, companies and corporations, we challenge everything that they stand for in the hopes of inciting change. When our anger is directed towards individuals, on the other hand, our activism becomes more ego-centered, and less value-centered.
Personal vendettas rarely get us anywhere in life. How likely are you to change your ways if someone storms up to you and tells you that “you’re wrong/unethical/evil”? Chances are that even if you knew that you were wrong deep down, you wouldn’t want to give the person who just offended, humiliated or embarrassed you the “win” or the last laugh. Chances are you would react with anger and completely shut off.
2. Instead of stirring up guilt, stir up good will.
One of the nastiest tactics employed by reactionists is the use of guilt-mongering to try and promote change. Although it is seemingly logical to try and show others what their personal, political, sexual and religious beliefs and choices are doing to other people and the world … all guilt-mongering really does is promote defensiveness and further ill will and resentment. It is human nature to avoid and deny personal faults and shortcomings after all. Ironically this perpetuates the problems that we’re trying to fix.
3. Embody your message.
There is a lot of talk, a lot of argument, a lot of verbal protest against the cruelties and injustices of the world – and this is fine. This has its place and it is necessary – but only to a certain extent. The most powerful way to inspire others is not by telling them how wrong they are, or why they should do this or not do that – it is by living your message each and every day. Why do you think figures such as Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Princess Diana, Trotsky and others were so memorable? People were inspired by not only their words, but their actions. So let your life be your sign post.
4. You can’t force others to change, no matter how hard you try.
Sad maybe, but simple. The truth is that you can never, ever force others to change. No matter how much passion, anger, energy or brunt you have, other people will only change if it is first within them to change. They have to make the decision – you can’t force them to make a decision – although you can encourage them. As an activist it is better to accept that mind-control is completely out of your spectrum of influence.
5. Channel your anger into deeds more than words.
As I mentioned, verbal activism is helpful and it has its place, but it can often be more sabotaging than helpful, especially when it is used to criticize, condemn and guilt-monger. On the other hand, putting the fierce energy of anger into deeds is much more beneficial in the long turn. It can be tempting to prove everyone wrong and position ourselves in a position of being “right,” but all this really promotes is sanctimonious egotism. Whether channeling your anger means creating facebook groups, signing petitions, writing letters, protesting, donating, or anything else, directing your energy towards creating change rather than slandering all those responsible for the ills in the world is the wisest choice in the long run.
Activism, like anything else, shares its deal of positive and negative elements. While it is wonderful and noble to try and “save the world,” it is also important to pay attention to the fine line between passion and self-sabotage.
Anger is an extremely useful emotion – don’t let yourself become consumed in it. Let it be the air to your sails.