Is activism less effective than talking to the ‘enemy’?

In a challenging article in the Guardian, Deborah Doane argues that activist stunts make good headlines, but make no long-term difference. She cites as an examples Shell’s cancelation of arctic drilling, pointing out that it wasn’t the giant mechanical polar bear camped outside their HQ that persuaded them to abandon the project, but pure financial considerations.  She puts forward the notion that even the suffragettes’ militant tactics hindered rather than help their cause.

The proposition put forward in the article is that activists take stock and, to be more effective in bringing about change, they should start sitting round the table with the ‘enemy’, focusing instead on shifting existing cultural values.

Her central argument is that “we spend far too much time preaching to the converted and not nearly enough time conversing with people who disagree with us.”

What I think she fails to realise is that many organisations do a bit of both. I know from professional experience that organisations like Oxfam do this rather well. You may hear about an Oxfam campaign here and there, but there is a lot more work they are doing behind the scenes in persuading governments to modify policies, as well as working in collaboration with corporations. The carrot and stick approach, so to speak, works well for them and other organisations.

She also seems to fail to understand that, while Shell may well have abandoned their arctic drilling project (at a loss of some $7 billion) because of financial considerations, activism is much more than a simple exercise of campaigning for change.

When she says “we spend far too much time preaching to the converted”, she is quite right – but doesn’t see the bigger picture. The reality is that you can’t spend enough time preaching to the converted. They are after all the driving force behind the causes they support. Their motivation and dedication in turn inspires and attracts new supporters and, more importantly, increases the willingness for others to donate to the cause. This is the life-blood for any organisation.

Just consider this example for a moment: without the high visibility of activism and media attention, public awareness of Greenpeace would start dropping off, and as they disappear out of the public’s awareness the flow of donations would eventually stop altogether. Without that steady inflow of donations Greenpeace could not possibly sit around a table with the ‘enemy’. They’d have no pressure points, and no funds to support their staff.

What other options are there, other than being funded by public donations? Considering that corporations look after their financial interests first and foremost, could you really imagine Shell financing Greenpeace?  Never mind that Greenpeace’s credibility would be non-existent as they would be seen to be in the pockets of the corporations they are supposed to oppose.

My thoughts are that, while some activist stunts do seem a repetition of previous efforts, and there does sometimes appear to be too much of the same going on around the world, activism does have an important role to play in getting the message across, rallying support – and affecting cultural shifts.

Through activism the public is made aware that somebody is doing something about issues they care about – and so are worth putting in the time and money. Simply put: activism is campaigning organisation’s value-added selling point.

While Deborah cites the militant suffragettes as an example of where activism appears to be a distraction from achieving the objective of the cause (I wonder what some feminists have to say about that), she conveniently forgets to mention the real impact activism can have. From Martin Luther King and the civil rights marches, Gandhi’s independence campaign or Nelson Mandela’s apartheid struggle. These are all shining examples of  how activism can be a powerful force of change. And in all those examples, it was in the end the power of activism that brought the ‘enemy’ to the table, and thus a change in culture.

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