Monday, March 24, 2008

Sara Jane Olson and Radical Activism

Let's start off our third year with a guest post from C. Ewing. (Open invitation to Playground playfriends -- if anyone has something they'd like to see posted, please send it along. Always interested in guest posts and new voices.)

So, noticing today's headline, I began to wonder: just how far can activism go? As we've discussed on your blog before, boycotting without harm is pointless. Indeed, activism that does not merely educate; activism that is meant to impact a system rather than inspire or merely disseminate information, must have some sort of power over the system it it supposedly affecting.

I'm reminded of PETA (don't groan...yet), in that they had shirts with a number on the front. I can't remember if it was 25 or 27 or what-have-you, but it was supposed to be the number of animal lives saved every year by a vegetarian. Were the bottom line of the meat industry not as marginal as it is, the impact would be limited to personal virtue, ethical considerations, etc. Being vegetarian or vegan would be strictly a matter of personal purity, and would have no interest, or rather, would have no leverage with which to promote an interest in the economic arena. The ability to alter business practices is indicative of a direct and notable relationship between the dietary practices of the consumers--even a minority of consumers--in regards to the industry and its ability to generate capital.

But when do you go too far? When does the (perhaps permissible) harm that is required to be effective as an activist start to edge toward rebel territory? When does being a rebel shift to being a revolutionary or a terrorist? Is it lives lost? Property damaged? Or is there something lurking under the surface? There does seem to be a respect for persons that is present with the activist. The activist does not call the butcher evil (not always anyway), nor the land-developer a villain. The activist realizes that we are all shackled to the economy, and the need to make a living. The idea is not to immediately overthrow the industry, to eliminate their livelihood, etc., but to alter it over time to make it more humane, greener, etc.

There seems--to wax Humean--to be a respect for our enemy. We are all ultimately people, and our compassion for those persons bumps heads with our striving to do the "right thing", and as such, our activism is tempered. Even the incredibly passionate activists stop short when it comes to the well-being of others, realizing that it is not only a concern--but largely it seems--at the very basis of why the activism exists in the first place. The intent is to make a better world, and just not just for the self, but for the sake of the people in it.

But this does not seem to be enough. I'm not sure forgetting the person behind the product is sufficient to make that leap. Is there something else? Is there a sort of mania or psychosis present? But I think that is dismissive. Surely, we can't think all these people are so handicapped. And what about the revolutionists we celebrate? What of the idols who wanted freedom to be bought with blood? Who felt that it was not just justified, but our obligation to fight, and kill, and die?

How do we distinguish the hero from the villain, when their rhetoric is so alike?

When do ends justify means in bringing about social change? When is civil disobedience across the line?