As someone who was raised as part of an overall politically left-leaning community of people, I am very familiar with many of the thoughts and goals of those who might describe themselves as Activists. The term inspires different reactions among different cohort groups, but there is a common perception that these are the people who get involved in protests, boycotts, and other related activities that are frequently seen in popular news reports. It is perception that appears to be ingrained into the minds of most Americans.
Aside from racial supremacist organizations, and similar types of extremist organizations, the idea of street level political and social activism is most readily associated with those who would self-identify as “Liberals,” “Progressives,” “Anarchists,” and a host of other similar labels. Political activity in the United States actually happens across the diverse universe of political and social ideologies, but the terms employed in describing activities by parties holding differing political and social views varies, depending upon who is describing the activity.
What is most interesting to some of us who reject political and social labels, is how these labels ultimately relate to the actions and effectiveness of the parties they supposedly identify. Many see the labels as being only marginally useful as a short of hand method of identifying and gathering similar groups and/or ideas, while other people like myself see such labels as being absolutely meaningless in any functional sense. How one tends to view such labels is often related to how one views the people who employ them. That is the point where many of us find the most potential for misdirection and abuse of such labels; by those who use them to obfuscate and misrepresent significant facts and ideas.
In approaching the term activism, for example, many of us find the word to be something of a misnomer. While it can engender direct and specific action towards a particular political, social, or other goal, it is most often centered around advocacy, which is something slightly different. The literal meanings of the words are very close, but their connotations in our complex language controlled society, are notably different.
Ever since the Citizen United Supreme Court Decision created the monstrous reality of SuperPACs, a legion of organizations has sprung into existence dedicated to influencing the election process. The types and numbers of different SuperPAC organizations is staggering, and the amounts of money involved in the process even more staggering. Are these organizations considered activist or advocacy organizations? There are a range of subjective answers possible, but there are legal limits to what they can do. Most of their activities clearly falls into the realm of advocacy, by functional definition, but some limited amount of overlap is occasionally noted.
By and large, the nature of political and social activity that is described as activism falls more into the realm of advocacy activities, in our current social and political environment. Whereas activism could easily involve feeding the poor, or boycotting a company, or starting a co-op, or any number of direct relief or direct remedy activities, advocacy is usually more focused on the promotion of ideas over direct action. While many people consider the concepts to be of equal importance, not everyone agrees with that assessment.
In a world where many people are dying from lack of food, medical care, housing, and wars are being executed at the expense of people’s lives, it is hard to imagine that ideas are valued quite as much by the involved parties as would be food, medical care, viable housing, or an end to the violence of war. As the world is destroyed by environmental pollution, and whole ecosystems are subject to collapse, ideas do not seem wholly adequate. This is not to say that the promotion of ideas is not valuable; rather it is simply that, in the hierarchy of needs, they may not be as urgently needed as things that actually sustain life and environment.
So, for some of us that have seen protests, social movements, and political movements come and go, we have become wary of those who see activism and advocacy as the same. Especially for those of us who have come from poor and distressed circumstances, the reliance on the power of ideas quickly grows old when we are facing another day without food, medical care, or a place to live indoors. Some of us would like to see a bit more effort from the advocates on bringing food, medical care, and housing to those in need in the here and now. I think that the idea is pretty well conveyed that, when people are starving, sick, and homeless, they need food, medical attention, and shelter. If the those inclined towards advocacy would spend more time actively bringing those resources to those in need, there would likely be some less need for advocates. That is what many of us on the front lines call activism.