A Catch 22
“And so you ask, ‘What about the innocent bystanders?’ But we are in a time of revolution. If you are a bystander, you are not innocent.” - Abbie Hoffman
I imagine this quote will either stir discomfort or invoke agreement, depending on who is reading. Topics such as racism and climate change are intimidating to talk about, which leads some people to “stay away from politics.” The activist side of me wants to argue back at those people and say something that follows the sentiment of “Silence drives injustice. Complacency is complicity. Apathy assists oppressors.” and etc.
However, avoiding politics is reasonable. Partisan politics is inflated with senseless division, and being consumed by the sensationalist dialogue leads to wasteful and juvenile gossip. It is also very self-destructing to simmer in a spiral of guilt that echoes “I am a bad person if I don’t spread awareness on social media” or “I am part of the problem if I am not politically involved.” So it would seem that everyone is in a Catch 22. It is true that apathy contributes to the problems of society, but being absorbed by politics is a destructive and problematic ditch.
A False Equivalence
Because of this Catch 22, equating politics and activism, (or the inverse: apoliticism and apathy) is not the optimal approach to social justice. Instead, it is important to understand that although the two elements are inevitably connected at some points, there needs to be some work done to distinguish scenarios where they should make contact and where they must be separate.
A political conversation is one where a specific politician, party, or political ideology is cited. While it is possible to speak on these elements objectively, this is very difficult and rare. More often than not, the conversation becomes partisan, which derails the original purpose of a conversation that is centered around a community’s well-being. For instance, I should be able to maintain a conversation about why wearing seat belts is a good idea without turning it into a campaign for who to vote for.
In the following sections, I will first explore where the combination of politics and social justice is inappropriate, and then discuss some exceptions where they can make contact.
The Role of Conversations
In order to better understand why including partisan politics in certain conversations is inappropriate, we must first understand how conversations and social action connect. Positive change can be thought of as a building a house, where the underground foundation is the conversation and the house on top is the social action. If you lay the foundation but neglect to finish the house, the project is a failure (in other words, you cannot simply ‘talk the problems away’). Attempting to build the house without laying a foundation is also a setup for failure (similar to social action without coordination, consultation, or knowledge). If you do successfully build the house, reflect on any imperfections so that a better house can be built next time.
There are a couple reasons why building a foundation with conversation is important. First, knowledge and education on particular topics are the greatest tools you can possibly have to manifest positive change, and consistent consultation accelerates the distribution of those tools. Furthermore, consultation allows flexibility in social action. Not everyone can contribute to their community’s well-being in the exact same way, and the full potential of a community can only be realized if everyone finds how they can contribute in their own unique way. Therefore, the quality of a community is directly correlated to the quality of its conversations.
Politicizing conversations undermines both of these reasons.
Instead of learning important information about critical issues or processing different views, we direct our energy towards labeling people and perspectives, and mistakenly associate those labels with moral composition. A conversation about who to vote for and how to politically label ideas is not a consultation focused on how a community should actually evolve. Any energy directed at political labelling is energy that is taken away from more productive ideas.
Instead of allowing the necessary flexibility and coordination in social action, politicization forces social action into a rigid and exclusive vehicle, when in reality, politics is not the only vehicle for social justice.
The Role of Politics
Change starts at the fringes and arrives in the center. Change rises from the grassroots and ends at the government. With that in mind, let’s now talk about the scenarios where politics does step into the picture.
Before continuing, I should mention that I am from the United States of America, so what you are about to read applies to Americans the most. I’m sure that for certain other countries, what I have to say is completely inapplicable. Furthermore, my line of work is very far outside of the policy making sphere.
Not all forms of social action include influencing government policy (as opposed to school or neighborhood policy), but if community consultation concludes that it is the best course of action, then it should ideally be assisted by someone who is experienced with reading or writing policies, because without context, the true impact of policies is difficult to calculate. Finding strategies to directly contact policy makers themselves is a straightforward approach. In trying to influence government policy, it is still important to resist any temptation of criticizing the characters of politicians. The focus should be on the policies, not the parties or politicians themselves. Again, any energy directed towards tearing people down is energy taken away from progress.
Voting is also another effective strategy available for influencing policy. However, voting is a very personal decision, so it should remain an individual action. Individuals can vote, but a community that works together can accomplish a whole lot more beyond voting.
What I try to keep in mind
Navigating meaningful conversations is very crucial for progress, which is why we must be carefully and consciously remind ourselves why we have the conversations in the first place. Otherwise, it is very easy to lose focus, especially with politics as an easy distraction. There’s nothing wrong with avoiding politics, but apathy should be confronted. Rather than challenge people on politics, challenge them (healthily and kindly) to be more socially conscious. Rather than guilting people into posting on social media, open up spaces where people can comfortably talk about important topics and courses of action.