So you want to be an activist...

by Trelawny Vermont-Davis / Beacon Staff • October 30, 2013

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Students often become pseudo-activists, more concerned with being the most visible advocate instead of the most informed.
Students often become pseudo-activists, more concerned with being the most visible advocate instead of the most informed.

“The Government is working for the rich and the poor are getting nothing.”

I heard this proclamation in addition to a few other statements about the current American government chanted through a megaphone while walking to the Park Street station last week. Although I essentially agreed with about 80 percent of what the man behind the megaphone said, it almost made me embarrassed to share his beliefs. When I escaped the loud man with the megaphone, I passed him off as one lone pseudo-activist on Boston Common. But the more I thought about it, the more I recognized that my generation is overflowing with megaphone-holding pseudo-activists, galling everyone within Twitter’s reach, deterring potential true activists from their cause.

In saying this, I don’t mean to dismiss the importance of broadcasting personal beliefs, but there are certainly superior and more effective methods than caps lock Facebook statuses and incessant group invitations. Further, it seems many students join causes their friends or student groups are involved in — regardless of the comprehension they have of the subject. During the Kony 2012 campaign, I wasn’t surprised to find that a whole two out of 10 peers who actually donated to the campaign could pinpoint Uganda on a map (yes, I polled them). I wouldn’t be the least bit astonished if those two students were in the minority if I polled all Kony 2012 patrons. Yet people donated. This was a reasonable course of action given the compelling nature of the campaign video — however, while bound by our pathos, we often overlook the importance of a comprehensive understanding of the issues we’re advocating for.

The Civil Rights Movement was successful not only because it had a message that tugged at people’s heartstrings, but also because concrete goals and objectives were not only articulated, but were turned into concerted, focused group action that made people pay attention — recruiting more activists to join the campaign over time, reaching a tipping point, and achieving critical near-unanimous agreement on what needed be done. 

When we treat worthy causes solely as the product of hip campaigns, we run the risk of overlooking the qualities that social movements so often need — people who are educated in the subject and who understand how to garner unwavering support to challenge policy. 

The women’s suffrage movement didn’t triumph because it was a sexy online campaign — it was successful because people truly understood the inhumanities that existed, the root of them, and what they wanted. Clear goals were present, laws were studied, and political cases were made.

The achievements of these communities of committed believers willing to put aside whatever else was in their busy lives to pursue justice on a particular issue is the point of effective political or social justice activism. 

Perhaps these same unities are why Kony 2012 is the quintessencial example of our generation’s inverted and destructive form of activism. Invisible Children got something right: The Lord’s Resistance Army is a brutal and destructive force. It abducts children and rapes and kills women and men, often forcing children to kill their own parents. And it’s been doing so for 27 years. But will capturing Kony end the genocide? Is Kony even the real culprit? Research from multiple sources, including The World’s Most Dangerous Places by Robert Young Pelton, says otherwise. 

Further, in spite of the campaign and the consequent 100 U.S. troops deployed to Uganda to find him, Joseph Kony has yet to be captured. 

Pelton, along with many other historians and African war experts, believes these efforts by armies and do-gooders are misguided. 

“All these actors have an agenda and they have limitations to what they are prepared to do, and they after a while start to benefit from the existence of Kony,” Pelton told Foreign Policy magazine. “It becomes a self-licking lollipop.”

But it seems that no one wanted to do the research, and those who showed skepticism were ridiculed by supporters of the campaign. Instead, we trusted an organization whose directors pose for pictures holding enormous guns and get arrested for public masturbation — an organization whose director of ideology confidently stated that “we are an advocacy and awareness organization,” not an aid organization. But in their videos, Invisible Children did not direct viewers to an aid organization, and instead asked for donations. And though they claim to spend 80 percent of their money on program expenditures, less than a third of that goes to actual programs on the ground in Africa. The rest goes to travel, salaries, and video production.

Instead of wanting to prove to all of your Facebook friends that you cared about the children in Africa by posting a video, you could have done some research and sent your money to charities that publicize their groundwork as opposed to glamorous shots of ideologues espousing their purpose to wide-eyed children in 1080p. 

If you don’t know inside and out the root issues of your cause and what exactly you want as the outcome, how can you expect to persuade others? Let us not forget the largescale failure of Occupy Wall Street. Because Occupy was designed to be leaderless and essentially directionless, everyone brought their own understanding of its goals and intents to the forefront, and if everyone has their own unique understanding, there is no way to coalesce and make a change — further proving that knowledge and some degree of unanimity is imperative in any successful movement. 

Activism for any cause cannot just be a fad, an equal sign profile picture, a bracelet you wear, or a status update you post. It needs to be a sustained effort by people who are knowledgeable on the subject and truly care. It’s certainly not about being the loudest, wearing an insert-cause-here T-shirt in your profile picture, or going to protests every few weeks — it’s about doing the hard research and choosing ways to make a difference.

So before we shout into the megaphone, let’s listen to the research.