Some Thoughts on Encouraging Reflective Self-Critique for Human Rights Activists & Advocates and Seekers of Social Justice

I find myself asking these questions and being concerned with the issues they raise in relation to my human rights advocacy and social change efforts and those of others.

I find myself asking these questions and being concerned with the issues they raise in relation to my human rights advocacy and social change efforts and those of others.


1. Am I able to empathize with individuals who have a different perspective from my own? How can I develop and nurture that capacity for empathy? How can it enrich my own social change efforts even as it may simultaneously challenge them and make them more nuanced?

2. How genuinely open am I to diversity and dissent within the context of my social change efforts and beyond them in society at large?

3. Do I value democracy and dialogue sufficiently in the context of my social change efforts? Who might I be unethically instrumentalizing if I neglect democracy and dialogue in social change processes? How does this impact their rights and welfare? How might that be harmful to their rights and welfare? How can I integrate democracy and dialogue effectively into my social change efforts?

4. Am I listening? How can I learn to channel my anger/moral indignation productively? How can I take care that I do not allow moral indignation to be transformed into destructive rage and prejudice?

5. What if I am wrong? Do I have a way of learning and unlearning that allows me to grow and change and be responsive to new knowledge, ideas, and perspectives? How can I confront my own prejudices and preconceptualizations as well as those with whom I work to advance human rights and social change? How do I ensure that I and we (fellow social change advocates and activists) grow intellectually and do not become narrow in our thinking, ideologically rigid, and dogmatic?

6. How much is my identity bound up with my activism? How can I avoid 'attachment' - in the Buddhist sense - such that my activism is not an outlet for egoism? How do I take care not to become exclusive and narrow in my moral and emotional commitments in ways that may blind me to the rights and well being of others and that may essentialize groups of people in reductive ways, either romanticizing them or castigating them unfairly in a sweeping and uncritical way that can be exclusionary in nature?

7. How can I advance justice without becoming drunk with self-righteousness and sanctimoniousness and the feeling of absolutist moral power and the risk of arrogance it can create?

8. When I advocate, organize, and campaign how do I take care to educate and inspire rather than to indoctrinate even as I have strongly felt and clearly conceptualized and articulated goals, ideas, and understandings of social problems and their potential solutions and a particular pathway of mobilization/collective action I seek to achieve?

9. Power might be more complex and diffuse than how I understand it to be. The possession of power (whether by an individual or by groups) does not necessarily equate with immorality and oppression and having little power does not necessarily equate with the realization of ethics and justice. However power - particularly when highly concentrated and unaccountable - often does corrupt and can easily make people vulnerable and disadvantaged if it is unchecked.

10. Where and how does humility fit into advocacy and social change? How do I develop a capacity for humility which can sometimes be undermined by the passion, clarity, commitment, and confidence with which I may hold particular convictions and aims?

11. Where do I hear critical perspectives that challenge my own and problematize by thinking? How am I self-critical and how do I cultivate that practice and encourage it in others as well as myself? If I am a liberal am I only reading the New York Times and the Guardian? If I am more conservative, am I limiting my reading to the Wall Street Journal and the Daily Telegraph?

12. How do I avoid group think and its pathologies and ensure that I think and act critically and independently and that I am not afraid to challenge dominant assumptions/attitudes/perceptions and beliefs of those with whom I work to advance human rights and social change?

13. How can I connect with groups and individuals that may differ from me ideologically and in my social goals but with whom I still have an enduring human connection?

14. Activism can be dramatic and self-involved; it can lead to narcissism and self-righteousness because of its often performative nature. How do I avoid the possibility of losing sight of fundamental values, of the rights and well being of others, and of overarching ethical and social goals if I become overly attached to the process of activism and its performative dimensions?

15. Do I make the effort to think, advocate, and work in ways that recognize nuances, shades of gray, and that avoid facile polarized boundaries that are inimical to careful analysis and genuine insight and that appreciate complexity and diversity?

16. I need to take care to avoid ad hominem attack and pejorative labelling of those who disagree with me.

17. How do I reconcile principles of the universality of human rights with the inevitable tensions that exist in a pluralistic world where even (and often particularly) amongst human rights and social justice advocates there are substantial disagreements about the substance, strategy, time-frame, priorities, and overall aims of pursuing human rights and social change?

18. I need to make the effort to ensure that when I am critical I am critical in a constructive way and not as a form of posturing, extremism, intolerance, hostility and negativity, and as an attempt to monopolize power and discourse, and to shut down dialogue and debate.

19. How do I maintain the integrity of my ethical and political convictions while acknowledging the demands of compromise and pragmatism that are necessary in any democratic society?

20. How do I strike the balance between the patience and equanimity needed to pursue social change which is often slow, incremental, and evolutionary while simultaneously maintaining the impatience and vigor needed to advance that process speedily so that equal rights and freedoms are enjoyed by all as soon as possible?

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