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13 Lucky Tips for Activists

By Errol Schweitzer, October 1998

INEVITABLE DISCLAIMER (from IWW.org Editor):

As instructed by the author of this document (which was originally intended for the enviornmental and/or animal rights movement), we have reproduced it here. Errol Scweitzer's views do not necessarily reflect those of the IWW or any of the individual members of the organization. We offer this statement as a friendly suggestion to hard working activists and organizers.

INEVITABLE DISCLAIMER (from Errol Schweitzer):

This (manual) is not meant to offend hard-working activists who are devoting much of their time and energy to social and environmental issues. It is meant as a critique of those qualities that may keep us from building an actual Movement. I know of many activists that are guilty of the things listed below, including myself. So please don't feel offended (which brings us to our first point...)

#1 - Have a Sense of Humor

The world is not going to change overnight, no matter how hard you work. Take time out to laugh at how messed up things really are. Take time out to laugh at yourself and the incremental changes that you and others are striving so hard for. A good chuckle now and then keeps things in perspective and may actually make you feel better about the work you have accomplished. Making fun of yourself and other activists may be a form of critique, and we all know that...

#2 - Critique is Necessary and Vital

Analyzing what went wrong and what went right about an action or a campaign may help you to not repeat the same mistakes twice. Listen to what others outside your group have to say, especially the opposition, which may be the perfect foil for your cause. Many great activists and revolutionaries engaged in rigorous self-criticism to realize what they did right or wrong. Luckily, unlike Che or Durruti, we don't have to do it under a hail of bullets (at least not yet).

#3 - Treat Everyone as Individuals

It irks me when Marxists and Anarchists refer to "the masses" or when anti-corporate activists refer to their peers as "MTV kids." By lumping people into faceless categories we forget that we are dealing with people who have reasons for believing the things they do, whether it is family upbringing, the influence of religion, or state propaganda, or just growing up in this damn culture. When you approach people as individuals, you remember that once upon a time you, too may not have had the beliefs you do now and may have been alienated by how some activists can come off when trying to spread their message. And so, the most important aspect of reaching out to people may not be what you have to say but actually to...

#4 - Listen to What Others Have to Say and Know Your Audience

Sometimes people's responses to what you have to say may be the best guide for learning what you shouldn't do next time. When you know who you are speaking to, you can craft your message it appeals to them. This is something the Christian Right learned long ago in their direct mail campaigns. For example:

By knowing your audience you can personalize the issue so that is not some abstract cause that they cannot relate to their everyday experience. If you are talking about immigrants' rights to some middle class white people, you can preface your point by mentioning "Imagine if this had happened to your grandparents when they were trying to escape the (famines, wars, genocide, intolerance) that brought them here." If you are talking to some kids on the street about how McDonalds is fucked up, don't just dwell on the facts that they kill millions of animals every year and use beef grown on former rainforest land. Many of the kids in my neighborhood can relate to the fact that McD's pays bad wages and makes you work long, grueling hours.

And oh yeah... ditch the highfalutin lingo! If you insist on "subsuming the other" and "deconstructing the privileged hegemonies of socioeconomic systems" then don't expect much of a response. If you know your audience then you can talk to them at their level, not Foucault's.

Besides, those big words are a privilege of those lucky enough to have been college educated and can set up an uncomfortable power dynamic. What's the use of promoting social change when you convey it in an elitist fashion?

#5 - And Stop Screaming All the Time!

Yeah, we're pissed off but if we are always screaming at people instead of talking to them, then they won't listen. So before you go to a protest, go work out or jog or something. You'd be surprised how people respond when you talk politely to them. There is a time for anger, and then there is a time for discussion. So think before you scream.

#6 - Single Issue Activism can be Problematic

While we all have certain issues that are closest to our hearts, we shouldn't close our minds to the possible interconnections between these issues or stop from examining how they may have similar historic roots. Sometimes single-issue activism can be very detrimental, such as how some environmentalists echo right-wing propaganda about immigration or how some anti-racist activists are just as homophobic as the KKK.

#7 - Having Progressive Politics doen't Exempt You from Being an Asshole

There are more than a few "progressive" people who are sexist pigs or hold some pretty questionable ideas about race and class. And activists can be just as cliquey and backstabbing as frat-people. The redeeming thing is that at least by getting involved the door is open for talking about these issues, right???

#8 - You Can't Save the World via E-mail Alone

Your computer is a product of the techno-capitalist system and whatever good you do with it does not equal the power it has given Corporate America. No matter how efficient, technology can never replace the power and intimacy of human communication and contact. The internet itself was designed by the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency as a way to decentralize communications in the advent of nuclear war. And over 98% of the internet's usefulness has been in speeding up commerce for speculative investment by very wealthy people all over the world. Admittedly, the internet has increased our communications and has helped to make progressive movements more globally linked; the Zapatistas may have been crushed if not for the e-mail updates they sent out during their uprising. But we can't rely on techno-activism all the time.

#9 - Leave the "isms" at Home

"So that's nice. You are a (insert typical social change label here)." To most people who don't share these beliefs, these labels are loaded with media stereotypes and corporate propaganda that demean the positive aspects that these labels carry for you and me. For example, after saying to someone "I am a multiculturalist," he responded with "So you hate white people?" Instead, I should have said, "I believe in seeing race as a historical construct; it is not real in any physical or biological sense, but people are manipulated into believing that it is and treating it so." And maybe that would have spurred some lively discussion.

So before you announce yourself as some left-wing "ism-ist", consider what may be going on in someone else's head about what you label yourself. Just think of what you considered a "communist" or "anarchist" before you became so enlightened; what do most people hear about these terms from the media? Let your actions define you, not your "ism's"

#10 - Lifestyle Fascism Sucks!

A major problem with many activists is instead of personalizing the political, they politicize the personal. Finding flaws in other people's lifestyles becomes something of a hobby for many progressive-types, instead of identifying and deconstructing the institutions that are the source of violence against humans, animals and the environment. It is an easy way out of making real change happen by just attacking this or that consumption pattern.

What we need to remember is that by identifying certain aspects of Western lifestyle, such as meat-eating, smoking, or not boycotting the latest trendy issue, we are forgetting that it is the whole damn system that is wrong. Our power is more than our pocketbooks alone. To make real change we need to organize and find things that more of us have in common, not alienate others because they don't conform to some lifestyle guidelines. Why recapitulate the authoritarian tactics of the Christian Right or corporate America? Let people decide for themselves what they can or cannot boycott and get off the moral soapbox.

#11 - Ha! Ha! Ha! You're Gonna Burnout!!!

Few things hurt our causes as much as exhaustion and the implosion of those who have just "had enough." You make bad decisions, you alienate friends and family, your personal hygiene takes a nosedive. You know what? You need a break! Take a nap, paint a picture, do something to relax your mind and body. Let your energy and zeal come back. Activism is tough and victories can be few and far between, so learn and take it easy. Even Assata Shakur says that the most important thing is to grow personally, to maintain relationships and hobbies. The revolution doesn't need zombies or robots. It needs people.

#12 - Stop the Sectarianism

Of course, this is like asking for tropical weather in Binghamton, but hey, might as well. From petty internecine squabbles at the local Food Coop to writers of The Nation insisting there are two (or more) "Left's", the movement has fractured and fragmented into so many little cliques and ideologies that you wonder what we have in common anymore other than our dislike for each other. While some of the bitterness is left over from past counterinsurgency operations, such as the FBI's Cointelpro and the CIA's Chaos, a good deal of it is just because of activists who have split due to personal disagreements and arguments over ideology and strategy. Wherever I have been, it always seems like this one doesn't like that one, that group betrayed the cause, this one is a sellout, that one is too extreme, etc.

As dismaying as this is, there are still so many people working for change that I must ask: can't we agree on certain vital things? Do we have at least a common enemy? Can we forget our differences and actually work towards some sort of consensus so that we stop shooting ourselves in the feet? If you are new to activism, stay above the pettiness and concentrate on the issues at hand. If you are from the old school, then us young folks need your experience, not your gripes and grudges.

#13 - Redefine Activism

Activism is an accepted cultural niche in our society. C'mon, we all know the stereotypes: bad dresser, self-righteous about this or that issue, screaming and chanting, holding up signs, getting dragged away by cops, etc. But by becoming part of this "activist" culture we alienate many whose side we are supposedly on. How many people can relate when they see media-bites of these "wackos?" How often do we feed these stereotypes?

But look what is happening. More and more people fighting for social change are just "regular" people: a one-day general strike by NYC cabbies in May 1998 virtually shut down the city; thousands gathered to demonstrate against anti-gay violence in NY in October 1998; recent general strikes in Puerto Rico and Colombia had hundreds of thousands of participants; 40,000 construction workers in NYC protesting non-union contracts, etc. And then there are the selfless acts we will never hear about: people forming support groups and discussion groups; people identifying who they are and where they fit into this society; people choosing to boycott some product or lifestyle, when and if they can. These are just people responding to the basic stimulus that their lives are being fucked with and they are not going to sit back and take it. These are activists as well. This is how revolutions come about. People who consider themselves "activists" have to break out the preconceived molds and listen to what people are really talking about. Anarchism, multiculturalism, feminism, communism, veganism are all just words until our actions give them real meaning and we define for ourselves what our activism really is. Until then, activism is going to be this small, accepted, ineffectual cultural niche that alienates the people who it is supposed to be reaching out to.