Activist’s DilemmaMay 1st, 2009

Some of us are joiners. We believe that a group of people working together toward a common goal is more likely to achieve it than the same people working individually. And since we’re social creatures anyway and like to be around one another, we might as well make good use of our affiliations and cooperate to produce big things. I’ve always found this logic compelling, and my parents encouraged me to join others in group efforts. School band, scouts, sandlot sports, and as an adult, Air Force, choir, politics, and parent groups. I’ve always been a joiner.

Some of us are skeptics. We believe that plans, policies, ideas and other bits of wisdom need to be tested regularly, even beliefs of long standing, held by great numbers of people. Skeptics raise objections. Skeptics dissent from the majority view and habitually take positions against accepted ideas. Some skeptics have doubts about the existence of God. Some see no future in democratic government or free enterprise. Some even question the intrinsic value of human life. Skeptics are like snowflakes. No two have the same doubts. But most of them share serious doubts about the effectiveness of groups and the motives of the people that join them. And so skeptics tend not to be joiners. When they do join, they question everything. I’ve always considered myself a skeptic.

Skeptics who join are activists. Activists turn out for picket lines and public meetings and protest demonstrations. Activists think of themselves as representing others. When an activist turns out to protest the closing of a public library, he’s out there for the multitudes at home who share his convictions but couldn’t show up for one reason or another. The skeptic that lives in every activist has doubts about the constituency at home. Bitter experience has taught activists that a demonstration consisting only of activists is an event the news media and the general public can easily ignore. I am an activist, and I can attest to this.

Meetings of activists are to be dreaded. Turnout is always disappointing. Arguments on trivial matters can take hours to resolve. Skeptics are there to point out deficiencies of every kind. See how much progress is made in a group of people who are quick to notice deficiencies. Often, dissent leads to conflict, and constant conflict can scare new recruits and hinder organizing. Turnouts at meetings tend to get sparser and sparser. Big groups break up into smaller, more insular ones with a narrower focus. The major objectives everyone rallied around become elusive. And so policies with broad support among the general public–tax-funded universal health care, for example–make no headway whatsoever because activists are splintered and disorganized.

It may be that activists are on a fool’s errand. Consider the situation of war protesters in America. They question the generally accepted idea that the U.S. is privileged to use armed force to advance national interests. They find considerable support among people on the street for their opposition to war but little or no appetite for public protest. And so they try to organize, and if they’re lucky, they overcome some of the internal divisions that alienate activists from one another, and they announce a public event. And when they turn out for the demonstration or conference, their numbers are embarrassingly small. Instead of making their point–that most Americans don’t like war–the pathetic turnout seems to confirm the opposite: that a tiny minority don’t like war, and everybody else is OK with it. The activists who show up, especially the younger, less experienced ones, feel foolish and ineffectual and are less likely to turn out next time.

This seems to be the story of the peace movement, the environmental movement, and all the other movements. Nobody has yet come up with a way out of this frustrating cycle, which can discourage and finally disable the individuals caught up in it. Activists are said to “burn out.” They don’t. They just quit fighting, defeated. They never stop burning, and they can flare up at any time.