Sunday, July 1, 2007

Activist Little

One day, my father and I were talking health, and through a circuitous rhetorical path, found ourselves on the topic of AIDS. Now, my father is a fairly conservative person, so as soon as the topic breached the surface, I was preparing myself for a tirade about how AIDS was a punishment for bad behavior, preparing my counter-arguments, and bracing for one of the famous blow-ups that occur whenever my father and I talk for more than an hour.

My father made a simple point: AIDS is not as much of a threat to people who don't engage in gay sex or IV drug use as AIDS activists, through the media, lead us to believe. These activists, he continued, were promoting numbers that they knew to be false. I was ready to pounce when he took me off guard by saying that such deceit was more than forgivable - it was required. Most people, he explained, didn't give a rip about AIDS. After all, add up all the gays and IV drug users in the country, and you don't even get close to a majority. But AIDS was so serious a disease, something so demanding that action be taken, that you couldn't afford to have it ignored by people who felt that it didn't matter to them. So they had to be convinced that it WAS a threat to THEM, so that they would feel compelled to press lawmakers for more funding for research, and pressure drugmakers for more effective therapies.

Once I got over being thunderstruck concerning his attitude towards AIDS, I was able to digest his opinions about activists. Now, nearly a decade later, I've come to realize that many people look at activists that way. To the average person on the street, I've come to believe, activists place their calls to action before the truth. If it takes people believing that there are a million people a year dying of AIDS in the United States to get the public to act, goes the logic, you can bet that the activist community will make sure that SOMEONE says that a million Americans a year are dying of AIDS. If it's true, wonderful, if not - well, that can't be allowed to stand in the way of a perfectly good call to action.

This widespread belief - that activists view motivating people to act as being infinitely more important that having them understand the truth - is perhaps the single biggest handicap that activists have. Because to non-activists, everything that an activist (real or perceived) says is now suspect. Once people come to suspect someone of activism on an issue, a certain level of credibility is lost.

As I've grown older, I've come the believe that this effect points to a damning habit of ours, as a public - the willingness to ignore problems that we think of as "small," or as afflicting someone else, or as not having a high enough ROI when fixed. We've become focussed inwards, and willing to overlook things, for fear of rocking the boat. Only when there's a crisis do people feel a need to act. Note the President's rhetoric concerning Social Security reform a couple of years back; you'd have through that he was talking about a looming worldwide catastrophe. But he knows that the threat of disaster is more convincing than a simple appeal to something better.

Perhaps we need to shake off a lethargy, an attachment to a status quo, and become more active, more motivated by issues before they become looming disasters. Were we less inclined to dismiss "the small stuff," perhaps we wouldn't feel that we were always being told the sky is falling...


ben said...

"not having a high enough ROI when fixed" is all you really need to know to understand a capitalist, lobbyist-run society (USA). When it makes sense, or hurts, financially, it changes. Until then... it's a waste of time. This is a pretty well proven rule with very few exceptions in the US.

TenaciousK said...

Welcome to the party.

Social motivation is a two-step process, consisting of 1) getting everybody's attention, and 2) persuading people to act. Activists are good at #1. They only seem to be good at #2, however - they prompt change in the short run, but undermine their position in the long run. Really, the only way over-the-top activists could be successful in the long-run is if they are able to keep the American public in a state of perpetual distraction, where they no-longer expend the resources to discern the lie in the extreme position...

Wait a minute. Nope, you're right - already happened.

Never mind.