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The Psychology of Activism

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Message Kathryn Smith

Following Rob Kall's request for testimony about what activist experiences we have had which have worked, as well as which have not, I am here to tell you about both situations in my activism.

When I first started my activism, it was fueled by a combination of things. Having lived next door to the Iron Curtain, with friends who escaped barely with their lives for the crime of writing a book about the dictatorship, opened my eyes up very wide in my adult life. I also have always had a strong sense of justice and ethic, which were drilled into me as I was growing up. I try to be a very gentle person and have a belief that we must be as kind to people as we can. But when you cross my ethic, boy I get mad! And I have no hesitation letting the world know when they are doing something unethical. I will not be held back!

I am not patriotic, and have always thought that stuff to be stupid. But I do have a passion for human freedom. Fueled by the combination of the Iron Curtain experiences and this inner sense of right/wrong, I became wide-eyed when Bush literally took office. I knew trouble was coming, right away, and recognized the danger signs for what they are. I knew a fascist dictatorship was under way. And knowing that dictatorships literally get murderous----Tianenmen Square is the most obvious proof but there are many more smaller incidents which have the same theme, ie dictatorships squelching dissent by murder or torture----I became fueled indeed. You'd better believe it.

 I started writing chain emails. I was vociferous. My tactic was to post all the red flags I could foresee, warning people of all the terrible scenarios to come.

It didn't really work. People don't respond well to negativity. They only screen it out or discredit it.

And yet, I think it's terribly important to expose the realities. How could I do it?

Years of chain email and letter-to-the-editor-writing hurls later, I finally learned. I got together with a brilliant activist, who trained activists internationally and was very studied in the art of how we are perceived in writing. She cued me in about how to be effective. I don't do it all perfectly, and am still inclined to want to wake people up by shaking them by the collar. But I try my best to incorporate what she has said. Here it is:

A) People are demotivated by depression. The thing to do is to offer the solutions, the hope, and suggest tools which give them a sense of effectiveness and empowerment. This, in turn, fuels proactivity. Very important!

B) Appeal to the beliefs running through people's minds and rebut them.


"Just let them wiretap me. I have done nothing wrong, so I have nothing to hide".

"Conspiracy theorist."

My rebuttal to the latter is: It's hard to believe, for sure. But it's been known since the inception of time that people are capable of good and evil. Sometimes we just can't accept that. So we blow off the realities, even when they are in our face. Who would ever have thought the Holocaust was happening? And yet it did. Who would ever have thought that people were kidnapped, starved and shoved live into gas ovens? Yet it happened. (And notably, to this day, some people practicing stubbornly rigorous denial still contest the historical truth).

So if we as activists rebut the commonly-held beliefs in peoples' heads, we get them to think. And act.

And we can point out to people when they are making assumptions. Just to say "that's an assumption" often generates thought, depending on the context in which it is said.

C) Focus in on your mission. Don't take on too many things.

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This quote summarizes the nature of my concerns and the content of personal experiences which stir my activism: "Necessity is the plea for every infringement on human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves". --Paul (more...)
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