Obviously each human being can donate some money and/or at least some time for causes they believe in. How far or how little they do this and its impact on society depends heavily on what builds or undermines their motivation and how they do it. Let us start with a simple exercise everyone should take. Please jot down the answers to these questions.
- I am an important activist in (fill name of organization)
- In your city, how many activists come to meeting of this organization?
- In your city, what percentage of the population heard about your group?
- How many actually support it? Why?
- How many could actually have heard about it and support it? Why not?
- What is the total net worth and collective annual income of the natural constituency for your cause (e.g. Arabs, Muslims, Progressives)? (say you estimate 5000 people in your area with average income of $30000, that is total income of 1,500,000,000).
- How much money have you raised? How much should have been raised? Why the difference?
- How many people showed up to the last four demonstrations? Why not thousands (in small areas) or hundreds of thousands (in Large cities like NY and Fan Francisco)?
- How many people actually changed their core beliefs and acted on their change of beliefs in your area?
- List briefly the reasons why the effort in your area was or was not successful?
After answering these questions in writing, please read this section and then we will come back to the answers.
The difference between those who do and those who don't motivate, those who succeed in effecting change and those who don't may not relate to total time spent but how and why it is spent. We must first admit that one could believe in a cause strongly, issue statements and declarations and invest lots of time but be very ineffective. So what makes effective activists? The following list perhaps summarizes the conclusion of many activists after studying movements, first hand experiences, and common sense. Much of this is derived from a number of conversations with other activists.
1) Believing in others so strongly that they start to believe in themselves.
This is not an easy task. The unacknowledged truth is that some elected and self-appointed leaders in movements actually retard activism in their community without realizing how damaging their actions are because they simply believe more in themselves than in others. I know of large and major US metropolitan cities where one to four individuals have an essential monopoly on what they perceive to be activism while really holding back younger generations and activists from getting involved. This is not a conscious decision on their part, but a subconscious thought process that is difficult to insulate from how humans relate to others. The biggest fallacy is thinking that no one else can do what they do and so when a younger person tries to give an opinion, there is this subconscious thought that we know best; it may not be expressed in words but humans have feelings and can read feelings more than what is acknowledged.
2) Ability to self improve
This is also not an easy task. Humans by nature are proud and want to get self-satisfaction so improving implies that we could be far better. It relates to humility. Doing the same thing for years and even decades does not mean it is bad but one has to not only keep the eye on the ball but also actually score hits sometimes. This requires continuous training and self-improvement. A good exercise is to sit-down and make a list of areas one needs to improve in. The list should include a minimum of five major areas. The list should be continuously updated and even grown. Because self-reflection is influenced by he environment and outside input, there is a certainly a role for input (positive and negative in shaping individuals). It is sometimes so easy to criticize others or issue declarations about what others need to do but so much harder to actually self improve. As De La Bruyere noted “the pleasure of criticizing robs us of the pleasure of being moved by some very fine things.” By contrast, the gems of true humanity are those that are humble and productive. Without those rare qualities in the vast ocean of ignorance and selfishness, an activist would get burned out and quickly abandon activism.
3) A positive outlook to effect change.
Life is too short to live it angry and unhappy. Life has both injustice but also altruism and love. What we choose to emphasize as Howard Zinn observed guides us. If we emphasize the positive, we increase positive energy.
4) Team efforts complementing individual effort:
Societies that promote authority (patriarchal structures are good examples) maybe seen as less successful than societies that promote individuality. However, the reality is much more nuanced. People have varying cultures and individual backgrounds and societies always have mixes of collective and individualist approaches. Communities that teach their children team play and taking pride in collective accomplishments produce a more functional society. By contrast, some teach children that it is a cruel and unjust world out there and that your only recourse is “to be tough and survive by whatever means possible.” However, individualism and self-reliance produces some good results: great entrepreneurs, artists, engineers, and doctors. But a functioning society also needs journalists, teachers, team leaders, social workers, and politicians. These latter skills are successful in the hands of team players and socially oriented individuals. We can develop a culture that promotes both in the context of peace and coexistence. We must not only encourage children to do well individually but also encourage them to do well by acting humanely and collectively. We must learn to admit limitations, join with others, and learn to be vulnerable. Team efforts do not mean submission to the will of others but merely learning to coexist and work as a team, not by coercive authority but by persuasions and logic.
In some cases an individual becomes inactive or active in the wrong directions because of negative interactions or self-centered motivations. This all comes down to the level of the individual. With evolving activism and ubiquitus and diverse information sources, there is less likely of "swaying minds" by lies and distortions. The challenges becomes more addressable (and solvable) when we each realize that solutions reside not in them or we but in I/me.
So now, please go over the answers to the questions raised at the beginning of this assay. Ask yourself these questions:
- In writing my answers above how much did I do of self-reflection and how much was I consciously or unconsciously looking for the outside?
- What really motivates ME (look very hard in the mirror and the inner recess of your mind)?
- What percentage of MY income have I devoted to this cause?
- What tangible results am I getting for the time I am spending on this (paperwork excluded)?
- Have I really been genuinely interested in collective and practical success or am I merely getting emotional satisfaction from my "involvement"?
- Have I really motivated others or have I alienated them (ask them!! do a survey of 100 people!!)?
Taking time to think about our initial answers and comparing to the new answers shows the power of looking inward in changing our behaviors in ways that make success inevitable. Doing so occasionally is a good excercize. In some cases, I recommend a more drastic approach. Leaving an area (in my case from North Carolina activist scene to Connecticut) forces one to rethink. If you are changging jobs or cities that could be used as such an opportunity to rethink. But another way to get a broader perspective is to take a year out from all the organizations you are currently involved in. You can start a new one or join an existing one to use your time. Doing so will be very instructive (but you must let go completely, not keep you hand in the pie). How do others react, did others step forward to take the lead? Where they inhibited before and why?
Randolph Bourne wrote an assay on war that unfortunately was left unpublished by his untimely death in 1918 (this is now in the public domain ad is available on a number of websites). Here is part of what he said about war:
"The moment war is declared, however, the mass of the people, through some spiritual alchemy, become convinced that they have willed and executed the deed themselves. They then, with the exception of a few malcontents, proceed to allow themselves to be regimented, coerced, deranged in all the environments of their lives, and turned into a solid manufactory of destruction toward whatever other people may have, in the appointed scheme of things, come within the range of the Government’s disapprobation. The citizen throws off his contempt and indifference to Government, identifies himself with its purposes, revives all his military memories and symbols, and the State once more walks, an august presence, through the imaginations of men. Patriotism becomes the dominant feeling, and produces immediately that intense and hopeless confusion between the relations which the individual bears and should bear toward the society of which he is a part. ....Loyalty — or mystic devotion to the State — becomes the major imagined human value. Other values, such as artistic creation, knowledge, reason, beauty, the enhancement of life, are instantly and almost unanimously sacrificed."As peace activists, we must not only understand the war psychology in order to actively work against war, but we also must understand motivation of all humans so that we can harness the great positive energy out there.
Now a good exercise if one believes that is to think how we in the peace movement should mobilize for peace and justice. Further how do we understand human behavior and social movements enough to actually change these. This is a topic that requires far deeper study than what most of us are willing to allocate to it. As an example, in human populations abused children may grow up to be themselves child abusers. A building guard in Egypt making less that $30 per month will act aggressively and easily insults an innocent bystander providing unintentional pay back for his childhood and his suffering. This cycle of oppression is not unique to this situation and can be extended to nations and people and even peace organizations. Thus, an activist who feels betrayed by authoritarian "leaders" of the movement may develop similar behaviors. So how does one deal with this? For one I believe we should never underestimate the power of emotion and observation. Second, I believe dealing with this requires significant labor and effort that many are reluctant to expend (due to our quest for quick results).
I believe we must develop respect for well-being and welfare of individuals (civic rights) both in societies and in groups including peace groups. When the tribe, family, or religion dominate the individual then the individual feels little motivation to help others in truly progresive ways that bring peace and justice. In the end the individual also suffers because what harms one harms all. Individuals may feel left out in traditional Middle Eastern cultures and in orthodox Christianity, Islam, and Judaism but in those traditions, society is supposed to take care of individual physical needs (including health). In Western and secular culture, it is claimed that individual opinions and ideas are important although some times individuals are left to fend for themselves. At the level of organizations, there must also be similar interest in the wellbeing of individuals as the well being of the group. I had a chance to observe Kate Dahir of the Palestine Solidarity group in Pittsburgh, a school teacher with true leadership qualities. The way she dealt with individuals and genuinely was concerned for their feelings and needs, respectful and thankful of all their actions (large or small) was truly inspiring.
A small group of intellectuals can achieve great things. Examples are too numerous to list but include land mine treaties, the Geneva Convention on Human Rights, the Nobel Peace prize, the Red Cross, the thousands of physical inventions that make 21st century human success possible, the thousands of intellectual revolutions and ideas that changed history etc. We have such people in our own communities and they should make us very encouraged. Examples at the national/international scene are Edward Said and Hanan Ashrawi and for me in North Carolina Rania Masri (founder of Iraq Action Coalition). These should be recognized as our true heroes because eventually their voices will be heard, if not by this generation then by the next generation to come. But I also look at the past 200 years and notice that great revolutions and great positive movements were made possible by the interactions of great individual achievers with great collective grass-root movements. Examples include the ending of the war on Vietnam, civil rights, women suffrage, dismantling apartheid, dismantling the Berlin wall, social security, ending slavery, etc. All these took both individual efforts in grass-root movement that evolved over years (sometimes decades). Activists for Palestinian rights are also evolving: they are becoming more sophisticated, more nuanced, less prone to rhetoric and hyperboly, more focused on practical actions etc (ofcourse there are always holdouts for the "good old days" of extreme left rhetoric that gets nowhere). Good trends are evident for progressive thoughts, towards practical actions, and away from tribalism and narrow nationalism. Counteracting regressive forces is being done successfully all the time and despite the current difficulties, I am 100% convinced the future is pointing towards peace with justice. Our task is really to shorten the time frame to get there. Each day reduced saves lives and decreases the misery of the occupied and colonized people of Palestine. That is the essence of why we should all work hard. The harder we do it, the sooner we arrive at our destination. But incidentally, we also get closer to our humanity and so reap the benefit as we go along.
An ancient Chinese proverb goes something like “I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand.” THat understanding in itself is a reward. The happiest and most productive people are those willing act on their conscience and molding their methods by input from outside with humility and hard persistent work.
In summary, we would be very frustrated trying to change other people. It is far more productive to change oneself, work, and set an example with humility for the next generation. Only by understanding ourselves well can we begin to understand others. The old African American saying in the civil rights movement was "Free your mind and your ass will follow". We can never help free others if our own mental chains shackle us. Once freed, a positive humble human mind can influence many (witness impact of Ghandi, Jesus, MLK etc). “Wisdom is oft-time nearer when we stoop than when we soar” (Wordsworth).
“You give but little when you give of your possessions; it is when you give of yourself that you truly give. For what are your possessions but things you keep and guard for fear you may need them tomorrow? And what is fear of need but need itself.” Khalil Gibran, “The Prophet”