If I called you an activist, would you be proud or think I’d just offended you?
It’s an interesting question, and one I hadn’t even really considered until a comment made by a colleague recently.
They told me they’d been called an activist but were surprised that it had been meant as an insult. In their minds, activism was good, but generally, I wondered, do we think about activism negatively?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines an ‘activist’ as:
A person engaged in or advocating vigorous political activity; an active campaigner.
On Oxford English Living Dictionaries they define an activist similarly:
A person who campaigns to bring about political or social change.
Sounds like a good thing to be right? Now read their first example of the word ‘activist’ in a sentence:
‘police arrested three activists’
This is filled with negative connotations.
The minute you place the word ‘police’ next to ‘activist’, you can’t help but conjure up images of violent protests and unlawful action, conveniently backed up by ‘arrested’.
And, wrongly or rightly, the first group I think of with regards to arrested activists is Greenpeace. Have a look at how many different stories come back when you do a quick Google search on ‘greenpeace protesters arrested’.
Sea Shepherd are another group who have faced legal action over some of their campaigns. Here’s another Google search…
But in both these examples, I often find myself overwhelmingly on their side, standing in agreement with their principles. So why the strong tactics?
Emilie Chartier is a volunteer for Sea Shepherd UK. She said, “In certain situations, I believe that direct action is a necessity. When it comes to marine conservation, the situation regarding our world’s oceans is simply worrying and terrifying and, while I appreciate and value all type of activism as they are to me complementary, direct action is needed now. We can’t afford to wait any longer. That’s why I am working with the marine conservation organisation Sea Shepherd who focuses on real-direct action to conserve and protect marine ecosystems and species. There is no choice, time is running out and protesting is just not enough anymore.”
The perception of activism is highly topical.
Recently, three anti-fracking activists were arrested and jailed for demonstrating at a site near Blackpool. Convicted of causing a public nuisance by a jury at Preston Crown Court, two men were given 16 months in prison, while another received a sentence of 15 months.
Four men were originally charged after taking part in a four day direct action protest that blocked a convoy of trucks carrying drilling equipment from entering the fracking site. They effectively camped on top of the vehicles for between 45 and 76 hours.
According to The Guardian, a barrister for one of the men said that they would become the first environmental activists to receive jail sentences for a UK protest since 1932.
He said: “Activists have previously been given jail sentences for charges related to their protests, like breaking injunctions and contempt of court.”
Now I can see why the protestors should be punished. They caused significant disruption and, if I was driving one of those lorries, I’d probably have been quite scared. But if I’m honest, when I found out about the jail sentence my first reaction was shock mixed with a bit of disgust.
I know the protest caused a significant amount of disruption but it was peaceful. No one was injured and no property was damaged. Does public nuisance really warrant a prison sentence?!
It’s worth pointing out that Lancashire county council were against fracking in the first place but the government overturned their decision and the energy firm Cuadrilla consent to extract shale gas on the site…
As a result, since the company began constructing the fracking pad in January 2017, more than 300 protesters have been arrested.
In an age where our prisons are full and our prison service is struggling, does this make sense?
Not all ‘activists’ are so disruptive of course.
Technically, if you start a petition, you’re an activist, and it’s incredibly easy to do that now through websites like Change.org.
So would you see a petition starter in the same way that you’d see a protestor?
I took part in a protest a few years ago, marching against the Taiji dolphin hunt. It was peaceful but you could also say it was disruptive. Hundreds of us halted traffic as we crossed roads in large bodies, and we positioned ourselves opposite the Japanese embassy, leading to police attendance to make sure the situation stayed under control. (It did.)
I also joined the thousands who took part in the recent protests against Trump’s visit to the UK. Again, it was a peaceful gathering of people but also incredibly disruptive causing major streets to be closed and van-loads of police in attendance.
By taking part in a protest, you are in effect an activist. So in both these cases, do you see that as a good or bad thing?
While writing this blog post, a friend sent me a link to a really interesting essay called ‘The Philosophy behind the Movement: Animal Studies versus Animal Rights’ by Elisa Aaltola from the University of Eastern Finland.
Elisa explores criticisms of the animal rights movement, as well as grassroots activism. She refers to critic Lee Hall who argues that direct action and force provokes negative media coverage of activists which, in the case of animal rights, persuades the public to be hostile towards them rather than supportive.
By choosing to threaten rather than persuade, they lose public support.
Hall also argues that the use of force provides authorities with acts that justify criminalisation, leading to laws that protect industries from activism and can even treat nonviolent activists as ‘organised crime’. Therefore, the effects of so-called ‘militant activists’, has a negative impact on those who are peaceful and don’t use force.
It arguably leads to negative connotations with the concept of ‘activism’.
Activism to me is standing up for your rights, your beliefs or a movement.
In this world of policy and legislation, sometimes a simple petition provokes a discussion but nothing more – and this is frustrating.
So while I probably wouldn’t be chaining myself to any fences or climbing up on lorries, I can absolutely understand the passion that drives someone to do so. When protests evolve to include acts that disturb the peace or cause a public nuisance, I quietly applaud them for having such guts and such passion.
When protests evolve to include violence and damage on the other hand – to objects or people – I’m not supportive.
But generally I believe activism is a good thing. In a world where we should value freedom of speech and encourage everyone to have their own beliefs, surely we should also encourage them to stand by them.
So when this comes in bodies of large numbers, isn’t it’s about time we listened rather than simply arrested and locked away?