With the world as it is right now, we need as many people as possible involved in activism, but we also need to do it well. Badly handled activism can put people off a cause. Worse, it can emotionally undermine people so they feel powerless and unable to keep contributing. Activism done well lifts and inspires people so that they want to get involved, and stay involved, and know that they can make real change.
Shock tactics may grab attention, but after a while they create apathy. There’s only so many abuse images a person can take, and the kind of activism that shows ghastly suffering – human and animal – can desensitise. It is tempting to use powerful images to get an important issue across, but the cumulative effect is that we all end up tuning stuff out just to cope, or pulling away to protect ourselves. Show me a live, happy dolphin and tell me it needs my help and I’ll go sign the petition. Tell me in words what the problem is, and keep those words bearable.
It’s also easy to fall into habits of blaming and shaming, trying to induce guilt to make people act. This can have a short term impact but over the longer term it demoralises people. The worst thing to do is take people who showed up wanting to help, and have picking holes in their choices be the main focus of the activism. Allies you don’t perfectly agree with are far more valuable than no allies, and infinitely more useful than enemies. Willingness to work with people who are not like us can be key – it was, after all, the otter hunters who first raised the issue of dwindling otter numbers in the UK some decades ago.
One of the reasons I love volunteering for The Woodland Trust, is that it’s all about soft activism and encouraging people. I’ve been a member for many years. They regularly send me news about their work, photos of landscapes they’ve bought and saved, and requests for funds for the next projects. I find it uplifting. We don’t win everything, we don’t save everything, but by focusing most on the better news, it’s easier to stay engaged. I know that my support for them makes a difference, so rather than getting ground down by what’s wrong, I get uplifted by the wins.
Activism needs to be underpinned by the idea that we can make a difference – because we can, but if we don’t believe that we’re not going to get very far. We need to stay hopeful, stay inspired, stay energised, and morale is key here. There will be lots of times when we have to talk about bloody awful things, but the focus has to be on what can be done, and how, rather than just hand wringing. We can change everything, if we help each other to do it.