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Activism, No Longer A Dirty Word

31/01/2017 12:00
Anna Omelchenko via Getty Images

"We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented." - Elie Wiesel

If there has been one positive outcome of 2016's political upheavals it is that a great number of people seem to have rediscovered what it means to be a citizen. Taking an active part in deciding the direction one's country and homeland is to take, adding one's voice to the cacophony of debate and opinion that is the natural and necessary soundtrack of democracy is becoming a regular part of more and more peoples' daily lives. This applies to myself as well.

In this first month of what we can still call our new year I have already attended two protests. That means I've already attended more political demonstrations than in the past two years combined. While the reasons why I have felt compelled to take this action are undeniably negative, the fact that I have been mobilized and roused from complacency is positive. In this I think I am a small part of a much larger trend. At the London Women's March Against Trump and at yesterday's demonstration in Parliament Square against Trump's Muslim ban, one of the most noteworthy things was the diversity of the crowd. While the student activist community were predictably (and rightfully) well represented at both, there were also a great deal of unusual suspects. Amidst the throng of people, one frequently found oneself marching beside elderly men and women, holding their homemade picket signs in woolly-gloved hands, families with children and infants in strollers, people, in fact, of all stripes and colours who defied the common image of the political activist.

I think that the political tragedies of the past year have reminded people that their individual contribution to the democratic process makes a difference. Secondly, I think the fact that the voices of hate and division around the world have gained new wind, forces that we all thought were extinct, or if not extinct then at least dormant and not any cause for worry, has achieved what many commentators on the left hoped for in the wake of Brexit and Trump. It has reacquainted people with their core values. As our long fought for freedoms are being threatened and trampled upon by blusteringly arrogant political leaders around the world, we have been reminded of how precious these freedoms that we have so long taken for granted really are. It has shown us how fragile our concept of progress is. It has shown us how crucial it is for us to uphold these freedoms and the values that support them. How important it is for us to reaffirm our commitment to them and our preparedness to fight for them. What seems to have happened, actually, is that political activism has become popular.

But the interesting thing is that I don't think many of those 'unusual suspects' that I spoke about at the demonstrations this month would consider themselves, if asked, to be 'activists'. And the reason is, I think, that activism is somewhat of a dirty word. It is not something most people who aren't frantically engaged with politics would associate themselves with. Activists are a rather unpopular social category. They are considered shouty, monotonous, repetitive, self-righteous, and in a variety of other ways simply quite boorish. Nobody likes to be lectured about a cause that they may not have much connection with and made to feel inadequate for their lack of engagement with it. Similarly, I think it is the association of activism with the aforementioned characteristics that makes a great number of people, who in many cases may in fact sympathize with a cause, reluctant to call themselves, for example, a feminist.

But this is precisely what is beginning to change. Finding themselves in the midst of a grand onslaught on their core values, many people have found, or rediscovered, the confidence to take a more decisive stand on important issues that affect us all, such as the equality of all genders, ethnicities and social groups and so on. To look within oneself, to locate where ones allegiances lie, to stand behind the principles that form the very basis of the society we want to live in, and be steadfast and tenacious in the face of attacks on these, is an important step in the life of every citizen and it is one which everyone should be encouraged to undertake.

I think this very process has in fact been occurring organically as people have struggled to make sense of the tumultuous year behind them, and situate themselves in this strange new reality we find ourselves in where an inexperienced, ignorant, intolerant and intolerable fleshbag like Donald Trump (believe me, I am restraining myself) is the leader of the free world.

What I think we all have an obligation to do at this point is to show, through a united front, that our values of tolerance, diversity and equality are not up for debate. We need to be dogmatic in our morality. We will not live in a society where the question of whether rape, sexism or racism are acceptable is even debatable. We must throw such debates out of the window as soon as they arise and anyone who is even prepared to consider such a point must be disqualified from the discussion by default. We have to become more confident in the things we stand for and less timid in speaking out about them. Above all, we should make active resistance to evil (I don't hesitate in using the term) a point of pride. Essentially then, we must all become - are already all becoming - activists.

We stand before one of those crossroads in history where to remain silent and passive is to tacitly lend strength to the enemy. The term 'activist' should really be stripped of its obnoxious (and in many cases unfair) connotations and begin to be understood exactly as what it really means: acting resolutely in accordance with ones most dearly held principles. The crowds that have been marching in unity throughout the world show that this process is already under way and I urge every one of us to raise their banner alongside them in solidarity.

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