If you've done any activism, especially if you've taken a leadership role, then you've experienced the frustration of trying to convince people to join your battle, whatever it happens to be. I'm not talking about changing people's minds. I mean getting people who already agree with you to take action.
My most recent high-stakes activism, while still in New York, didn't involve a lot of recruiting. I was organizing and working with people who were already active. But I recently stepped out into the larger world, and received a face-slap reminder of how frustrating activism can be.
I started a petition asking Major League Baseball to end interleague play. It's not an issue of global importance, nor was I treating it as such. But it's something discussed endlessly around the world of baseball, and something many fans complain about.
My intentions were simple. I thought it would be cool to assemble a large number of signatures, possibly get a little media attention (which in turn would attract more signatures), and then present the signatures to MLB. Here, we're unhappy. We are serious fans, and we hate what you've done to the sport. As consumers, if we're unhappy with a product, management should hear from us. I see a petition as an opportunity for communication and complaint.
I can't invest a lot of time posting the petition to blogs and forums. I did that a little bit, but mostly I'm just hoping people pick it up and it takes off on its own. If it doesn't, it doesn't. I don't have a lot invested in it, it's not the focus of my life, it's just something I put out there in the world. I'm willing to see what happens.
I was totally unprepared for the vehemence of reaction to a simple petition! Not about interleague play itself. I'm used to those debates, I've heard every argument for and against. This is reaction to the idea of circulating a petition. The most common response: "I got news for you, this will never work!"
First, he has news for me. Meaning, I'm naive. I don't know how the world works.
Second, it won't "work", so he won't sign.
I explain that it's not about whether the petition will actually bring about the end of interleague play. I realize it will not. But I want to tell MLB that a significant number of fans dislike this change they have made in the game.
To which the fan replies, "That's stupid! Why are you doing this if you don't even think it will work?"
Sometimes the issue seems to be petitions themselves: "Petitions don't work."
I say, "If you don't agree, don't sign, of course. But if you agree, it only takes a moment. Why not put your name down?"
Because, he says, petitions don't work.
Do these responses contain clues to why more people don't get involved, in any activism? I don't have the time or inclination to bother with people who won't sign a petition to end interleague play. It's not worth my time or energy to try to convince them. But their reaction is something I have to look at.
We often say the biggest obstacle to organizing is apathy. But apathy, a lack of caring, doesn't explain this. These are folks who will work themselves into a lather about sports issues. You can read their angry postings on blogs and message boards, and hear them on talk radio, every day of the week.
But will they take a tiny step to communicate with the people who have the power to change the issue? No. That's stupid, because it will never work.
Is this perhaps an extreme fear of being wrong? Are people afraid that they will invest emotionally in something, and when it "doesn't work," they'll look foolish, having backed a loser? Is this about an extreme need to be right?
In the summer of 2004, our applications to immigrate already filed, I spent most of my time organizing voter registration drives and get-out-the-vote campaigns for John Kerry. I did this, despite believing the election system is fraudulent and corrupt, and despite the fact that I was leaving the country no matter who was elected. Madness, perhaps, but it was something I felt compelled to do.
I chose not to spend any time debating the issues or the relative worth of candidates. I put all my energies into getting people to register to vote, and then to actually vote.
I remember inviting a work acquaintance to join the voter-registration drive. He had the time, he had the skills, and he believed in the cause. He asked, "Will I see results? I only like to do things where I will see results."
I only like to do things where I will see results.
Results of activism are long-term, and can only be seen cumulatively. We can't point to a single action and say this is what brought about change. In any movement, there are hundreds of battles fought simultaneously on dozens of fronts. That's what a movement is.
You can play a part, you can add your voice to be an agent of change, or you can sit on the sidelines and declare that you will only move your butt if the organizer can guarantee you a positive, short-term outcome.
"I only like to do things where I will see results" is the long-form of "it will never work".
For me, personally, activism is a necessary part of life. It's an antidote to helplessness, a balm for frustration. It's a connection with like-minded people, a reminder that I am not alone, that people care, that, although the road is long, we are many, and united, we have power.
Sometimes, that's result enough.
But what is "It will never work"? What does it mean? Why is that the first concern?