Ethics for Activism

Wednesday, 25th May 2011 at 7:00 UTC Leave a comment

Very often its not just the message of a campaign that brings people to get involved. Under pressure, or simply because of differing perspectives, activists can be pretty bad with the way campaigns are conducted. Without wanting to name names, its worth picking through a handful of things that really annoy me.

I shall start with a personal concern surrounding petitions. By their nature, petitions are meant to be handed to someone. It can be a politician, business owner or a news outlet. It is certainly true that having a petition on a stall can serve many purposes; conversation starters, first steps towards wider action, or even a way of legitimatising an action that you know will be much smaller on the day, to name just three. But essentially, a petition is still a petition. Unless it was never intended to be handed in, sent in, presented or otherwise used.

Let me distinguish this from a slightly different issue: its totally fine to say “we’re going to hand it to one of our MPs but we haven’t made the decision which it will be” or something similar. The problem comes when petitions are essentially vacuous exercises in grabbing people’s attentions. If its just something people can sign that’s on your stall, people have every right to feel duped. Its not a petition at all – its just a ploy to get people to stop by your stall.

Add to this the number of petitions that don’t say “if you provide an email address, we’ll add you to an email list”, and you get some very irate members of the public, who often don’t distinguish from one group to another. Even if you don’t think it will make any difference, as collector of signatures, you have a duty to give people their voice by actually posting the petition sheets or whatever needs doing.

Then there’s the finer balances, like joining up issues – just because you think an issue is obviously connected to another issue doesn’t mean everyone agrees. And just because a group shares an opinion on an issue doesn’t mean there’s common ground to work together on it. Also, just because you think a specific tactic will make a bigger impact than another, that doesn’t mean its wrong to pursue the lesser tactic. People are entitled to throw their weight behind whichever issue they choose, and within reason, whichever tactic. Added to this, the tendency to confuse a planning meeting for a campaign with the appropriate time to read out your party’s opinions on a situation does annoy me.

I suppose what a lot of this comes down to is respecting other individuals’ agency, particularly those coming from outside of the activist community. We shouldn’t impede people’s agency when they broadly agree with us or use it for that which they hadn’t intended their efforts to be used. Whilst there are times when this becomes a no-win situation (where stopping someone from acting in a specific way is counter-posed by people feeling their efforts have been hijacked by someone else. A lot of this relies on activists trying to figure ways of allowing each other to coexist.


Entry filed under: Activism, Ethics.

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