Activism isn't for everyone
Why academics and journalists shouldn't take sides
Kim Kardashian, activist
For most of history, to describe oneself an activist would have begged the question, ‘For what?’ As far back as Spartacus, people who are not at the centre of political power have organised campaigns to force social change. But the labels they used for themselves, or acquired along the way, usually reflected the specific cause for which they fought: suffragette, abolitionist, socialist.
Today, ‘activist’ is shorthand for someone who engages in any kind of political campaigning, for any cause or for multiple causes. It’s become abstract, almost contentless. In essence, however, it means to declare for a side, and act on its behalf. The word derives from a political movement formed in Sweden during World War One to advocate for the abandonment of the country’s neutrality. The activists wanted to enter the war on the side of the Kaiser.
In our century, activism, or at least the idea of activism, has acquired a patina of glamour. To be an activist is to be seen as someone with compassion and courage, in a feckless and selfish world. In the US, activism is a career path. You might join an animal rights charity before deciding you’re interested in pro-choice politics, before leaving that for a stint at an an environmentalist group. It’s relatively easy to move between these organisations because the people in them are very similar: highly educated, left-wing, vegan or thereabouts. Kim Kardashian’s efforts on criminal justice reform are impressive, but the fact that so many celebrities now add ‘activist’ to their bio is a sign of its enhanced value as an asset people can add to their portfolio of identities.
There are few more status-insecure professions than academia and journalism, and so, unsurprisingly, there is now a movement within both to overturn historically respected norms of neutrality and objectivity in the name of activism. The argument goes something like this. There is no such thing as objectivity since you always choosing what to research or report on and what to publish. You may as well own up to, and own, your political bias. Unless you take a side - well, you can’t not take a side, since, post-2016, the enemies of democracy and justice have destroyed any middle ground. “In a propaganda-rich system, to be neutral is to be complicit,” says a Harvard Law professor, the author of a report on media coverage of the 2016 election. Wesley Lowery, formerly of the Washington Post, says “a good journalist is an activist for truth.”
Anh Le, a political theorist at the University of Manchester, elaborated on this view, within the context of his field, in a short piece from 2020. Academics, he says, “establish facts”, and in doing so, they “turn up many disturbing facts before the public is aware of them”. It is their duty, therefore, to promote these facts as widely as possible. This is an unconvincing description of academic work - how often do, say, political philosophers discover “facts” of which the layman is unaware? I’m not sure scholars establish facts so much as propose or question them. (If indeed facts are at stake; Le is a theorist, after all). Le points to examples of academics who have engaged in politics without, in his view, sacrificing curiosity or humility. But he doesn’t confront the structural tension between the two mindsets.
Activism means acting, not thinking, and the less you think, the stupider you get. I am putting this too starkly, of course. I don’t think activists are stupid and I believe they do valuable work. But to act on the world, you need to shut down your reflective, analytical brain lest you become paralysed by all the options it generates. Nietzsche advised, “Once the decision has been made, close your ear even to the best counter-argument: sign of a strong character. Thus an occasional will to stupidity.” A little wilful stupidity is required to make any change happen. The more a person focuses on political actions, the harder it becomes for them to justify the kind of thinking which puts those very actions into question.
The thinking brain is very different from the activist brain. For one thing, it is not as keen to conform. Activists band together to make change, which means they have to care more about getting along with their allies than about intellectual originality or nuance. We need people - activists and politicians - who are willing to do this, otherwise nothing would get done, but we also need people for whom opinions and ideas are not a method of relationship maintenance, or, indeed, ammunition. A society in which everyone commits to a political side and tries to crush the other is not a healthy one. I’ve written before about why liberal democracy needs inactivists - people who are politically indifferent - if it is to avoid being swallowed up by conflict. It also needs people who aspire to be politically disinterested in their work.
Of course, hardly anyone is pure activist or pure free thinker, so this is all a question of degree. But it’s crucial to recognise and respect the division of labour, in society, and within ourselves. I’m going to look at why this matters more closely, using the example of academia, although most of what follows applies to journalism and other domains.
After the jump:
- A closer look why it would be bad and self-defeating for more academics and journalists to become activists, drawing on a fascinating new paper by the law professor Tarunabh Khaitan.
- The surprising revival of Joe Biden’s presidency, and what it tells us about how politics works.
- A very juicy Any Other Business, with links to some fascinating stories, including a piece of unexpectedly good news on the environment.
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