Tag Archives: activism

Building a better world – art and activism

Last week someone responded to my blog about what’s happening in modern Druidry by saying that we don’t need more books, we need more activism. My knee jerk reaction (as someone who writes books and gets involved with activism) is that of course we need both.

I’ve seen comments from people who are far more involved with activism than I will ever be, saying how much they appreciate good books to escape into, and other nourishing forms of art. I’ve done enough campaigning to know that it is gruelling, it wears you down emotionally, you get exhausted. If all you do is fight, you can lose track of the good things that you were fighting for, becoming totally focused on what you’re fighting against. That makes it really hard to stay motivated and keep going. Sometimes it means becoming the thing you were trying to replace.

One of the big questions when dealing with any cause, is how to get more people involved. How do you make them care enough to take action? How do you get them to change day to day life choices if you are an environmental campaigner? How do you persuade them that your cause is the one they should give their money to? Hard hitting, emotionally affecting campaigns can have the effect of shutting people down and driving them away. Who can face looking at another lost and starving child, another brutalised animal, another grim and traumatic outcome of human behaviour? How many of those can you bear to see before you start tuning out?

To make change, you have to believe that change is possible. You need hope, optimism and a sense of the possible good outcomes that can be achieved through your actions. It is better to inspire and uplift people into action than to frighten or depress them. People who believe in their own power can and will act. People who feel powerless in the face of all that is wrong, give up. Stories, songs, art – expressions of hope and possibility – help people to change things.

We need stories. We need stories about things that worked out ok, or better. We need stories about how much better things could be. We need things that feed our souls so that we are fighting for something, not merely grinding ourselves down against the vastness of all that is wrong. For some people, the comfort of a spiritual book is a real boon in this context as well. Guidance on how to uphold the spiritual side of your life, and the inspiration to do so, can be a real blessing. Something to hang on to when the world is breaking your heart, something to bring your grief to, and somewhere to seek sustenance.

For some people, spiritual practice is what makes it all bearable and possible. For some people, it’s escapist fantasy fiction. For some of us, it’s music, dancing, or walking, or bird watching or any number of other things. It is important to stay human, and to do the things that fill us with joy and hope.

If you want to do your art and activism at the same time, watch out for Share the Love in February – raising awareness of climate change.

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Hate speech and activism

Here’s a thing I’ve seen too often. A woman does or says something unacceptable. She is rightly called out for it. But then the tone changes and it becomes an opportunity for anti-female hate. Rather than talking about the issues, words like bitch, witch, and cunt enter the mix. We will hear that she’s old, fat, ugly, unshaggable. In the worst cases, there will be threats of rape, violence and even death. This has got to stop, because there is nothing, nothing a person can say that makes it ok to threaten them.

There are a number of things that happen when this occurs. Firstly, it derails the actual issue. Whatever we should have been talking about gets lost in the noise of hate speech. That’s not good activism. Tory women subject to threats online became a bigger story last year than the shit they had been dealing out. That’s not a win for your cause. Hate speech justifies more hate back at you. That’s not a win for your cause. There isn’t a good cause out there well served by directing hate towards women. Nor is there a good cause well served by perpetuating rape culture.

Last time I did a stall in the street, and old Labour supporter- a guy – explained to me that this kind of political situation is what you get when women are allowed power, because women are basically awful. I’m not prepared to accept that. I’m not prepared to let Theresa May be judged for her gender rather than her actions. It’s her actions, and lethal inaction we should be calling out, for as long as it takes to get real change. Hating her for being a woman doesn’t actually help.

It’s all too tempting to give the person holding your banner a free pass. They are on your side, apparently, they turned up to support your cause and bash your enemies and so we accept them and even welcome them. It doesn’t help that we treat so many issues as fights, us and them, my enemy’s enemy is my friend. Except they aren’t, and what we’re doing is giving room for haters and people who are totally at odds with our causes and values.

If your allies are using hate speech and making threats of death and rape, they are not your allies. They just happen to hate your opponent more than they hate you. They find your banner a convenient thing to hide behind. They may even be there for the harm they can do to your cause. I’ve seen it so many times online this year – people on the right complaining about the vile hate speech and threats coming from the left. Making death threats to Tory women does not advance any cause for the common good, it harms it.

Do we trust everyone who turns up and says they are with us? Do we trust everyone who claims to be our ally that they really are that? It seems rather naive to me. The people holding your banner have the most power to destroy your credibility, especially if you stand by and let them do it.

We have to stop giving free passes to anyone who claims to be ‘on our side’. When you’re working for cultural change, the ends do not justify the means. If the means take you in exactly the wrong direction, then what you’re doing is creating a cultural change that goes in exactly the wrong direction. You don’t make people safer by making death threats. You don’t further your cause by letting people with a hate agenda speak loudly on its behalf.

We have to start dealing with each other based on how we behave, not based on whose side anyone says they are on. If we see our ‘enemies’ as inhuman and deserving the worst we can do to them, we have lost already. To win at radical cultural change, we have to persuade. We have to argue over the ideas and the methods. We have to deal with the issues. Hate speech doesn’t do that. Ever. We have to be the change we want to see and our methods matter, which means we have to speak up against hate no matter where it comes from. We have to say no, this person does not speak for me. No, this behaviour is not acceptable.


Talking about activism

Most forms of activism are about communication. It’s the business of educating and informing, challenging, sometimes even demanding. Activists identify things that need to change, and, by word and deed, attempt to get others on board with that change. It may be about changing views held in the dominant culture, changing laws, changing behaviour and it can be needful in any aspect of human activity.

I’ve been involved with all kinds of activism for most of my adult life, and I notice there are ways of doing it that work better than others. I know there’s a widespread feeling that too much negativity doesn’t serve any cause, but this is going to be a blog all about the negatives. Much depends on context, and on working out what serves the situation, but some things never have much mileage in them.

  1. Alienating people who could have been persuaded to get onside. Most often I see this with people who moved towards, trying to understand and needing help. We alienate them by demanding they already know, demanding they educate themselves, or putting them down for not being good enough allies. This does not tend to turn them into allies, and may breed resentment.
  2. Focusing on the wrong things – mostly this means focusing on people with little power and influence who are easy to harass rather than going after the difficult ones who can change things. Blaming people who have no more power to change things than you do can be cathartic in the short term, but does not get results.
  3. Letting ego take over from the message. People who spend a lot of time talking about what fantastic activists and allies they are, not actually doing any of the work of being an activist or an ally. If the activism is propping you up and not the other way round, you’re doing it wrong!
  4. Noise, not difference. Talking about things can feel like good activism, but if you’re talking in an echo chamber, nothing is changing. If you’re picking over whose making the tablecloths for the post-revolution party, and not working towards the needed change, it’s more daydreaming than activism. There can be some culture shift gains from just talking about stuff, but they often aren’t as big as we think they are.
  5. Not walking the talk. If your life doesn’t express your values, then your values appear pretty hollow to anyone looking. No one will be persuaded by this. Don’t ask other people to make lifestyle changes you haven’t made yourself. Don’t ask other people to solve problems you are not personally working on solving as well. Offering solutions is more effective than just demanding change.
  6. Not taking into account other people’s limitations. Poverty, disability, lack of education, lack of opportunity and the like can make it difficult for people to do what you think they should be doing. Activism cannot be a middle class hobby, real change has to be viable for everyone, so make sure the change is inclusive, and don’t bully anyone for not having the resources to do things your way.

 


How to be an activist

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.


Why be a tree activist?

If you’ve ever tried activism, you will know how good the odds are of being hassled over your choices. Worried about refugees? Why aren’t you looking out for the homeless in this country? Worried about poverty in the UK? Didn’t you hear about the poor people facing famine? Helping animals? Why aren’t you protecting abused children instead? Helping local children? Think of all the advantages they have compared to animals who can’t speak for themselves. So yes, why be a tree activist rather than saving elephants, fighting for world peace, or some other cause?

It’s important to me to flag up just how fraudulent the whole line of questioning is. Anyone who tries to help in any way is likely to be hit by one of these. It very seldom comes from other campaigners. It usually comes from people who aren’t doing anything but want to derail you. This is a tactic, and the effect of the tactic is to wear down and overwhelm anyone who thought they could help. It comes (I think) from people who are so defeated, so crushed and dehumanised themselves in face of all that is wrong, that they cannot bear anyone else trying to improve things. If anyone else keeps going, it probably invalidates their sense of being entitled to not try. That’s my guess.

So I took up tree activism, because I needed to pick something to focus on. There are many, many causes I care about and I’ll help where I can, but I can’t be an effective, active sort of activist for everything, there aren’t enough hours in the day. Also, I love trees.

Standing up for trees does a whole array of other things. Protecting trees means protecting habitats for other creatures, and green spaces for the good of human mental health. Trees take carbon out of the air, so protecting trees is a way of fighting climate change. Woodland in the UK helps prevent flooding. Woodlands overlap with human heritage sites – Sherwood Forest being an obvious example. There’s lots of traditional, more sustainable small scale industries depend on trees, while resisting development to protect woods is still resisting development. It ties in with being anti-fracking, anti-pollution, anti unsustainable development.

For me though, the best bit is that tree activism isn’t just about resisting. It’s not just about saying ‘no’ to a horrible, destructive future. It’s also very much about having a positive vision. A vision that is literally greener and cleaner. A vision of landscapes protected for the good of everything in them – humans included. A slower, quieter, more human way of life, with plenty of peace and beauty for all. A kinder, gentler, more accommodating future. The culture that gets its head straight about the importance of trees will have also figured out why trees are good for people, and why people don’t do so well in nosy, polluted, stressful environments.

Want to know more? http://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/blogs/woodland-trust/