Do I really care about Activism?

I was challenged during the last seminar class about the implications of a scientist society.  I am strongly opposed to being an activist because as you know, my personal definition of an activist is any person with strong beliefs that can be expressed in an intolerant manner.  This person or group of persons do not consider other opinions and are ready to do anything possible to make things change according their belief system.

Consider the definition from dictionaries:

English Oxford Dictionary of Politics proposed that an activist is

“any person who takes an active past, usually as a volunteer, in a political party or interest group. […] Either they enjoy political activity for its own sake, or they have off-median views which give them an incentive to pull the party or interest group towards the position they favour, rather than the position it would take to maximize its vote or influence. Hence some have argued for a ‘law of curvilinear disparity’ which holds that activists hold more extreme views than either the mass electorate or the party leadership. There is some empirical support for this ‘law’ but it has rarely been tested carefully.” 

I did not find a definition from a regular English dictionary.  However, here is the definition of Activism in the English Oxford Dictionary:  

Activism: the policy or action of using vigorous campaigning to bring about political or social change.”

In these definitions, there is nothing about radical point of views or intolerance.  However, I just noticed an interesting part of the “problem”.  I checked for a French definition and here is what I found. 

The office québécoise de la langue française states that Activist is:

Membre zélé d’un parti ou d’une faction de tendance extrémiste ou extrême qui s’infiltre partout, profite de toutes les occasions et ne répugne devant aucune méthode, même violente, pour assurer le triomphe de ses visées idéologiques ou politiques. 

A translation (a trial) would be: Dedicated member of a party of extremist tendency, who benefits from all the opportunities and by any means necessary, even violent, to ensure the triumph of the party’s ideological or political aspirations.

I am really surprised how these two “dictionaries” define Activist differently.  The English one is more about being active in making things change and the French definition is more about a radical view of how to make things change.  It might explain why in class, we were not in agreement on the definition of activist.  Is it the fact that we have different culture and history and therefore different definitions?  No, I don’t think so… I was the only one who believed that activist focuses more on extremism…  Anyway, it is quite useless to define Activist as long as we know that there is a wide range (different level) of “being active” (doing nothing to extremism).   The level varies among individuals according to the personal willingness to change the world.  Some might want a minimal social implication and others are passionate about it… However, I suggest that we should be aware that the more you get involved, the more you share the information with others and therefore your voice is more likely to be heard.

Even if I do not consider myself an activist, it does not necessarily suggest that I do not get involved.  I personally like to be involved in different public debates.  I have written letters (essays) in Le Devoir, Fédération Professionnel des Journalistes Québécoises website and I have my personal blog.  I hope to been able to publish in other Montreal newspapers soon.  They were not all published but I tried.  Does it make me an activist?  As mentioned, I do not really care about the word Activist itself… I care more about what I am really doing on this planet and do not pay attention to how people define me.  One thing is absolutely sure; I will never be “activist” as suggested by the Office québécoise de la langue française.  Can I do more?  For sure…  I would love to share my ideas and knowledge with kids.  I like challenging myself in order to assess my communication skills but also to see how the perception of environmental issues varies across the generational divide.   Why I am not giving seminars to little kids?  I hate to say that but time is unfortunately a limiting factor. 

This is my concept of been active; get involved in diffusing the “common knowledge” and play your social role if you want to be heard and make a real difference.

However, as opposed to my personal contributions, I also like to read blogs and literature from others with different backgrounds.  It, sometimes, keeps me grounded because I feel occasionally that “my head is in the clouds.  There are always people that challenge and force you to reflect on your true beliefs.  Even if it is very tough, it forces you to come up with stronger arguments.  For me, it is not important if your opponent drags you down with their arguments, I care more about how you bounce back.  Even if it seems impossible, I will always believe that things can change… even if it takes time.

For example, one thing that really impressed me during the last class is the fact that Mr Madhav Govind Badami has shifted from a pretty secured financial situation in India to a real insecure environment.  He did what I called “jumping head first and without a safety net” because when you make decisions driven by your feelings, you do not necessarily consider the consequences of your actions.  He did not turn down opportunities that were offered to him.  These “jumps” are often the best decisions that you have ever made.  He has even called this jump as “madness” but it reflects that everyone can switch and change at any moment of their life.

Anyway, the point that I wanted to go here is simply the fact that I do not really care about the usage of the word “Activist” as long as it does not mean extremist!  Then, get involved and change the world!

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8 Responses to “Do I really care about Activism?”

  1. sieber says:

    Maybe this is the definition of activist: to be put on a country’s terror watch list. Climate change activists might be the last group you’d think would be labeled as trouble makers. They tend to be scientists in their professional lives. They listen to all sides, although they believe in the consensus agreement of climate change scientists. They’re tolerant. Sure, they’re in an interest group. But we’re all in interest groups, at minimum, we probably belong to professional scientific associations with normative activities like codes of ethics. Many of these associations lobby government, for example to improve science education or increase grant funding.

    I think you’re right that we don’t fundamentally disagree on a definition of activism, although your finding of difference in the two definitions is striking. Perhaps, it is a type of continuum, with letter writing on one hand and the Black Bloc on the other. The question is, where do we, as scientists, draw the line on the continuum? What is an appropriate level of activism?

  2. LBM says:

    “Environmentalist” is another good example of definitions that can be placed on a continuum. The definition of the “environment” is inherently complex and thus defining how we work toward environmental principles is just as much. Ultimately, the goal is to support principles of how humans and the non-human world should interact. Yet personal experience and knowledge feed this value and thus each person’s expression of environmentalism. It will be different depending on what makes you passionate whether it be food safety issues or wildlife conservation or water resource management and so on.

    Some equate environmentalists at the more extreme end of activism because of publicized reports of actions of a few (think Greenpeace). The regular and continuous work is not as media-grabbing as shock-provoking stunts. It’s the same idea that bad news makes the news. The work which creates positive change isn’t as exciting because we’re expected to be inherently good. This work though is more important than extremism. I think it bears repeating that ultimately what matters is that all of us need to act as a model of how ought to live our lives so that others may be influenced by this example.

  3. This topic really turns me on. Even if extremism tends to make the news, it does not necessarily suggest that making news makes things really change. General public would rather hate extremist actions instead of really understand the environmental problem. Who have not heard people saying (after seeing a Greenpeace action on TV): “Holy BIP… look at what members of Greenpeace are doing… they’re so BIP”?
    One other important consideration to think about is the fact that those extremist actions make prejudice to pacific environmental organisations that do not, what so ever, consider extreme actions. Do we have to stop extremist organisations? Absolutely! How? This is another story! Ok, time for a drink, it is Thursday “happy hour” quand même! see ya!
    Before I go for the drink, the level of action, hence, should depends on the person willingness to change the world. We cannot force people (scientist) to take any action obviously, but we can take a café with them and discuss how they feel about it!

  4. sieber says:

    “Environmentalist” is a tough one. I know many, many environmentalists who are excellent scientists and who are not at all extremists (in free_of_charge’s definition). At the same time, I’d say they’re activists by definition. The question is, does activism mean they’re bad scientists? And aren’t scientists trying to change the world?

  5. patagonia says:

    I do not think that activism means being a bad scientist; this is because I do not believe that environmental activism is necessarily ‘extremist.’ There are, of course, extreme cases of activism where the science or scientist behind the movement would be made less credible. For example, the science of forest ecology being practiced to learn how much forest can be sustainably logged, and then making recommendations based on your findings, is good science and activism since it will encourage limiting the amount/type of forests that are logged. However, conducting the same research, and then going out and spiking trees so that a logger (probably someone not very influential in informing forestry policy/ protection) becomes seriously injured, makes the whole scenario (including the scientist) less credible, no matter how sound the science was to begin with. When I say that science is ‘credible’ or ‘less credible’ I do not mean ‘accurate, sound science’ vs. ‘inaccurate, unsound science.’ Rather, I mean that science presented in an appropriate way can be used to inform people and policy, it is credible. When science is presented is an extreme, radical way, it can not be used to inform people or policy, it shoved aside as wild assumptions or wild environmentalists that are best not to deal with, and is discredited.

  6. shorty says:

    I would go for a broader definition of activism. Although I don’t believe just informing someone about a subject is activist, I do think there are ways that are not extreme that play the same role. Petitioning for example; I believe that’s a form of activism but its not harming people. It says we the following care about the situation and want change. A scientist giving a seminar stating, this is how things are, is not activist, but if he begins saying, this is what I believe should happen he assumes the role. Speth for example told the audience we should do something about the global catastrophes occurring in the world. That’s activism, trying to gain a response. It’s not wrong to attempt to elicit a response as long as its not damaging to others.

  7. Shorty, we all agree for a broader definition of activism but dictionaries do not agree with each other… Why??? The difference of perception might be a matter of culture or language… Anyway, I don’t want to go into that but the things is, as long as we are defining our own definition, activism is just a simple word with 8 letters… That’s it.. A conclusion, however, that we can withdraw from this is the fact that where ever you go, you must adapt your message to the language/culture of the audience in order to be well understood. This does not apply only to Activism but for everything else!

  8. totunroz says:

    So what makes us decide where we draw the line between scientist and activist? Are these two so distinct afterall or are they sometimes intertwined, making it difficult to label one’s actions? Communicating and sharing the results of your scientific work is a form of activism? Engaging in research in the field of environment isn’t? Is participation to international conferences in the field an extreme form of activism? Should we refrain from such an aghast behavior just because our statute of pure scientists cannot be compromised in such a way?
    What if we didn’t care about the label others are putting on our actions? What if we just did what “felt right”? Maybe I’ll decide that sharing my work is precisely what I want, that I feel comfortable giving an informed answer when one is solicited, but I would only refrain from what i consider to be extreme actions. Is that going too far? Should I care of being labeled as an “activist”? Why?