6.15.2007

apathy, laziness, fear?
or something else?

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?

15 comments:

M@ said...

My father never used to vote in elections for a similar reason: because all politicians are no good. Not that that stopped him from complaining about the ones who did get in, of course. But I was always a little mystified when I was a kid. I think it's a similar attitude.

I kind of wonder why I always felt so compelled to vote myself, even in my early years when I usually just spoiled my ballot.

I also like when people justify not voting because "one vote won't make a difference". That's beyond apathy and straight through to complete idiocy, in my book.

impudent strumpet said...

New rule: people who don't vote because they don't think their vote will make a difference are required to give their vote away to the first person who asks for it.

Which will lead to prowling bands of campaign workers seeking out unwanted votes, and generally make the election prediction game much more interesting.

MJ said...

I hope you'll forgive the rambling nature of this comment... I'm working out my thoughts as I type them.

They are being rationale in their own way (not the petition guy--sounds like he wasted more time arguing about the use of a petition than choosing to sign or not sign). Often the return on the investment of their time is not enough to justify said investment. Is it right? Probably not. It is damn frustrating, without question While few would openly admit to thinking this way, subconsciously some people believe that a passive activity (say, watching an episode of Lost) provides greater benefit. I know a few self-claimed "hard-core environmentalists" who don't care about politics in the slightest, even though it seems from my vantage point that the issues are intertwined. Especially if they want to accomplish their goals.

In the second scenario, I think you'll find that you would get more out of a success than he would. You also get something from knowing you're at least making that effort that maybe he doesn't feel (or thinks he doesn't feel--perception is reality in the decision stage and it normally takes that first bout with a cause is normally enough to change a person's mind). It's a bit like a lottery: the gains of winning are tremendous, the chances ridiculously low, but people play anyway. Why? The chances of winning are so slim as to shrink the value of the end goal, but somehow I think lottery players gain more from playing/thinking about the chance of winning and the small gains of, say, $10 than a non-player understands (I know I don't get it, but my mother, bless her, is a dedicated player, never misses a drawing, and doesn't seem unhappier for it).

And people DO like to be on the winning side. It's mentally status enhancing. So "hopeless" causes are avoided for fear of status-loss. Makes the average person a lot more conservative in picking and choosing what causes to connect with: why risk a negative gain in pleasure when you can get the safe, secure gains of sitting on a couch, eating popcorn, and watching the latest episode of 'Generic US-Import Sitcom' with the up-and-coming star, 'blandly handsome and inoffensive in test screenings'.

All that said? It's still frustrating.

L-girl said...

My father never used to vote in elections for a similar reason: because all politicians are no good.

This always strikes me as the easiest and most naive dismissal. Instead of thinking about the issues and what might help any given situation, just dismiss them all as no good. Then continue to whine, of course, as you point out.

It's maddening!

L-girl said...

And people DO like to be on the winning side. It's mentally status enhancing. So "hopeless" causes are avoided for fear of status-loss.

I definitely think this is part of it. That's why I suggested fear as a possible motivation here.

It's difficult - impossible, really - for me to address this attitude because I don't understand it at all.

L-girl said...

It's a bit like a lottery: the gains of winning are tremendous, the chances ridiculously low, but people play anyway.

Playing the lottery is indulging in a fantasy. You spend a small amount of money - money that (unless you have a gambling problem) you don't need and will never notice - on a fantasy. If you think of it as pure entertainment value, like a theme park for the mind, it might make more sense.

But I'm not sure I understand the connection between that and the activist/apathy issue.

L-girl said...

Which will lead to prowling bands of campaign workers seeking out unwanted votes, and generally make the election prediction game much more interesting.

You'll have to make these votes available for trade on the internet. Otherwise non-voters could never leave the house. People would be camped out on their doorsteps like paparazzi.

Granny said...

I've all but given up around here. I still join in the vigils and I'll help with a petition gathering if I'm asked but it's discouraging.

Ignorance born out of apathy? Around here, probably. We have a classic ultra conservative/ultra liberal divide who write most of the letters and do most of the work and then there's everyone else.

Baseball. While I agree with you somewhat in principle and I preferred baseball when there were only 8 teams in each league, baseball players (and teams) stayed put for years, and there was no such thing as a d.h. or a closing pitcher, I'm somewhat torn.

Right now I'm waiting for the Giants/Red Sox game to start. I love Fenway and I'd seldom have a chance to see it otherwise.

Barry (love him or hate him) clearing the green monster? To me, priceless.

L-girl said...

Hi Granny! I can understand giving up, or at least taking long breaks. It's essential for one's sanity.

The problem with the "good old days" of baseball is that they came with the bad stuff too - segregation and no free agency.

Baseball players "staying put" for years was because they were owned outright and had no control over their careers. We wouldn't want it for ourselves, so we shouldn't wish it on any one else.

I love Bonds. I'm one of the few who still say that. But he doesn't belong at Fenway, unless he's in the WS, or unless he is signed by an AL team.

I'm very psyched for today's game! But that's not because of interleague. :)

Granny said...

You're absolute right about the "good old days" of course. I was overjoyed when "free agency" finally came in and the players were little more than slaves.

I like Barry too. I've always thought he was being punished because he wouldn't suck up to the press.

And I like the Red Sox. So far as the American League goes, they're a class act.

L-girl said...

I was overjoyed when "free agency" finally came in and the players were little more than slaves.

I'd have been very surprised if you felt otherwise!

I like Barry too. I've always thought he was being punished because he wouldn't suck up to the press.

I agree. And scapegoated for what is likely a very widespread issue.

We always think so much alike. :)

And I like the Red Sox. So far as the American League goes, they're a class act.

I say the same about the Giants. In the NL, I like the Giants and the Dodgers, which shows you I'm not a real fan of either team.

loneprimate said...

Personally, I never signed because I like the idea of interleague play. :) I only wish it had been in place before we lost the Expos. I like the idea of the Yankees and the Mets facing off from time to time during the summer instead of in conjunction with the return of Hailey's Comet. For those who have convictions on the other side of the fence, though, I understand the impetus towards a petition. They should at least be heard.

L-girl said...

Personally, I never signed because I like the idea of interleague play. :)

Uh, yeah, but that's not really what this post is about. It's about why people don't want to get involved, or do anything, about any issue.

loneprimate said...

It's about why people don't want to get involved, or do anything, about any issue.

I understood that; I meant to suggest something about people's motivations. Often what you don't see is every bit as motivated as what you do... it depends on the circumstance. 'The absence of evidence isn't the evidence of absence,' blah blah blah... A better example might have been people's reactions to your considering not voting in upcoming US elections, for instance. I suppose I could have just come out and said it plainly but using a personal example seemed more subtle. Too subtle, I guess. Is the not voting example a better one? :D

L-girl said...

Ah, I see. Yes, you were too subtle for me! :)

These are people who are absolutely, without a doubt, opposed to interleague play. They hate it. They complain about it bitterly. But they will not sign a petition and they claim that circulating a petition is stupid because "it won't work".

***

PS, I'm not "considering" not voting in US elections - I'm not voting, period.

But that's not apathy. That's a personal boycott. I can't wait to vote in Canada!