First published: Ceasefire magazine UK
The past decade has seen millions marching against the Iraq invasion and other wars, millions more helping and being helped as natural and man-made disasters struck from Japan to America. Just in 2011 alone – much to the amazement of political and social scientists – we witnessed the street revolutions of the Arab Spring. A revolutionary wave of demonstrations not only toppled decades-old dictatorships but have prompted a healthy ‘culture of debate’, across the world.
These protests shared a number of common techniques of civil resistance, through sustained campaigns involving strikes, demonstrations, marches and rallies, as well as the use of social media to organise, communicate, and raise awareness in the face of state attempts at repression and media/internet censorship.
The Arab Spring confirmed the significance of the power a “common” man or woman can possess. Dictionaries and historical narratives have undermined the usage of the word ‘activism’. It is now usually understood to be intentional efforts to bring about social, political, economic, religious or environmental change. Activities that are usually understood to be ‘activist’ in nature include protests, walks and demonstrations. This is only partially correct.
Activism is not necessarily about ‘change’ for change’s sake, activism also exists to maintain and protect the valuable freedoms and rights secured through the sacrifices and resistance of those before us. Activism is not only rebellious protests challenging authority but a broad set of activities to meet clear ends and objectives, to instigate a debate in society, and therefore to continuously meet evolving circumstances.
As such, it might not necessarily involve any ‘protesting’ at all. Let us remember that not everything that calls itself “activist” is inherently positive in its nature. Many “activist” groups and organisations across the world work diligently towards outcomes that others would hardly describe as ‘positive’.
Possibly due to the confusion that surrounds the word, historians have not been able to produce a ‘history of activism’. And yet, shouldn’t we start seeing our own common history of mankind as precisely that? A ‘history of activism’? After all, human history and progress have been built, in one way or other, upon various types of “activism,” all the way back to when the first human being stepped on earth.
Every one of us is affected by the happenings around us. From bad drainage across the street to extremist organisations propagating intolerance. From domestic state policies that need to be opposed to Imperial oppression that should be resisted – everyone is affected. Some feel the need to ‘do something’ and try to challenge, inspire and lead whilst others, convinced that one voice, one action, or one person are helpless against the enormity of the task, resign themselves to do nothing instead. The former are called ‘activists’, the latter I call ‘slacktivists’.
With advances in telecommunications and internet technology, we are more exposed to information than ever before. With a sudden burst of social networking sites, we are more powerful than ever before. The ease with which digital activism can be the driving force behind tangible output is awe-inspiring. Blogging is already the new face of media: we all can be journalists and activists. The only ingredient that distinguishes an activist from a slacktivist is the will and the desire to do it.
Of course, it’s not all about marches and campaigns. Volunteer work for a social cause is an equally valid way to alleviate poverty, fight corruption or to ensure equal rights of education and health facilities to all.
Complaining about contemporary state of affairs is easy; trying to work towards how you envision your society, country or world ought to be is the real test. As we move further and faster towards a more globalised world, with technology that enables us to matter beyond our mere physical borders, we as global citizens need to realise that we matter. And activism, in whatever form, is the spark that leads to the streets, to the ‘change’ that we, the global masses, aspire towards.
Some believe an activist is born and cannot be ‘made’. I don’t: every man and woman is born an activist. Whether we admit it or not, it is carved in our common history and, whether we like or not, it will define the future of our humanity.
Syed Ali Abbas Zaidi is featured in ‘Activate’ a new series on Al Jazeera English following activists