Why Activism Matters

When political activists engage in discussions with sympathetic non-activists, we often encounter the idea that all the work of protesting injustice, educating the public, and agitating for change is futile in the face of the monolithic weight of social inertia and elite power structures. Indeed, despite being armed with a knowledge of the history of how political activism has shaped the world and brought about progressive changes, we can still find that, when we beats our fists against the imposing wall of power time and time again and our fingers stand bleeding at that effort while not a single damn brick has been dislodged, it can be discouraging to say the least.

Here’s a comment that I ran across today on a post from the excellent Kasama Project:

It is interesting and appropriate, G, that you bring up the Milgram experiments (“The Perils of Obedience” I think, is the title of the paper he wrote about them). Overall, Milgram’s studies found that a huge percentage of the population (at that time)–as he summed it up, it didn’t matter what social strata or country the people came from–would go along, playing their obedient role in helping to electro-shock a stranger beyond the point of rendering them unconscious, even when that victim complained aloud that they had a heart problem, so long as the subject was told clearly by a team of lab coat technicians that 1) the Experiment required that the test-shocking go on, and 2) that the subject (who was asked to press a button, giving the victim a shock each time he or she gives a wrong answer… or no answer at all) will NOT be held responsible for the effects of the experiment; the scientists take “full responsibility.” Something like 90% go all the way to not only torturing, but potentially killing the shocked-subject. Shocking indeed.

Nonetheless, one remarkable finding of Milgram’s studies–he ran the experiment many many times, playing with different variables along the way–has always represented a certain basis for hope. Namely: the fact that when the study was staged so that one of the three lab coat technicians (all played by actors of course) rebelled, verbally protesting and then refusing to continue with the lab experiment, ALL OF THE TEST SUBJECTS (the shock-button pushers) ALSO REFUSED AND STOPPED. EVERY SINGLE TIME.

I have always thought of this as a kind of allegory for how the rebellious actions of a minority or even a single person–particularly someone that occupies some position of authority within a particular community–can utterly transform a situation, opening up the possibility of others’ real freedom. That is, we might say that it is the psychic space created by the rebellion amongst the so-called “experts” that enables the “subjects” to act upon their own impulses, which were already present, but were suppressed in service to a up-till-now unified and seemingly monolithic authority.

I take comfort from this in the knowledge that even if it sometimes seems like activists are talking to the air, speaking out about injustice and speaking up for the voiceless and oppressed is never futile. Every voice is like a little light that opens up just a little more space in the darkness allowing some other soul to find his match and light his own candle to join the growing chorus of lights. Eventually, there comes a point where there is sufficient brightness for everyone to locate their own light source if they have one, and then, this flood of lights will banish the darkness to the tiny cracks and crevices.

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