This is something I wrote a while ago, I apologise for the somewhat out of date references, but I feel that there are good points in the article nonethless.
“There are thousands who are in opinion opposed to slavery and to war, who yet in effect do nothing to put and end to them; who esteeming themselves children of Washington and Franklin, sit down with their hands in their pockets, and say that they do not know what to do, and do nothing; who even postpone the question of freedom to the question of free-trade, and quietly read the prices-current along with the latest advices from Mexico, and, it may be, fall asleep over them both. What is the price-current of an honest man and a patriot today? They hesitate, and they regret, and sometimes they petition; but they do nothing in earnest and with effect. They will wait, well disposed, for others to remedy the evil, that they may no longer have it to regret.” H.D. Thoreau
It used to be that activism was a noble and honourable thing. Becoming involved in politics, or at least striving for some concept of democracy, was encouraged, even enforced as Rousseau argued for. Even today, we more or less recognize the foresight and intelligence of historical revolutionary movements and leaders such as the Abolitionists, Suffragists, the National African Congress, Ghandi, and Martin Luther King Jr. However these days the media labels contemporary activists ‘Anarchists’, regardless of their beliefs, and sensationalizes the protests, blurring facts into indecipherable nonsense. Governments no longer permit open criticism of their policies and actions, choosing instead to push society back into the nineteenth century.
Activism implies activity, doing something to get involved in making decisions and affecting policies in one’s society. Whether this means protesting out in the streets, writing letters, boycotts, or joining a political party all require some thought and conscious action. Activity promotes involvement in our communities and neighbourhoods, activity creates a more democratic society by ensuring that everyone’s views are heard. Activity requires people to care about our neighbourhoods, our environment, and humanity. Activity is by nature contrary to apathy, which is the same thing as indifference.
Over the last few years there has been a resurgence of activist movements. Some scholars will argue that calls for revolt and change increase when the people become desperate. We ARE desperate. What with government controlled unemployment rates, increased corporate globalization, environmental disaster, and inequality galore, just to name a few, the people are becoming active.
The activist movement gained new support in Canada during the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) Summit in 1997. What began as protest against Human Rights violations escalated into something much more when Indonesian President Suharto asked that Prime Minister Chretien guarantee that there would be no protests to embarrass him while in Canada. Eventually, Chretien declared the entire campus of the University of British Colombia (UBC) a “Charter-free zone” in order to keep protesters away. What this meant was that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms would not apply to anyone on UBC property, including those students that lived in residence, and anyone working at the university. This showed to what extent our government was willing to go to keep activism quieted. Thus, activity that is not succumbing to apathy is being suppressed by those in control.
This same level of control over citizens’ participation in the decision making process was seen at the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) meeting in Seattle, at Queen’s Park in Toronto, at the WTO in Prague, at the G-20 summit in Montreal, and in other unexpected places like the Olympics where governments must promise to prevent all protests while the Olympics are happening. It can be argued that this is part of an increasing trend toward globalization, smaller governments, less social spending, and corporate control of politics.
However, citizens are still the most powerful members of a nation. Activism involves many forms of civil disobedience. Be it Ghandi’s Satyagraha or what the world calls ‘Passive Resistance’, or Malcolm X’s declaration, “By any means necessary.” Civil disobedience and activism ensures that ALL of our concerns are heard and considered before laws are passed, before spending is cut, and before our governments take us back into the nineteenth century when business and money controlled everything, and people had to fight very hard to get minimum wages, shorter work weeks, no child labour, and the weekend.
Civil disobedience is also important during international discussions about free trade, at the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) in April 2001; and about the environment, the intergovernmental negotiations on the Kyoto Protocol in the Hague right now. About globalization and loss of national control over quality and safety standards, at any WTO convention or G-7/8/20 meeting; and especially at political conventions like we saw this summer in the US. As citizens are increasingly being excluded from these sorts of important decisions we will see people take to the streets in order to be heard.
There is no end to activism as long as we live in a society that has government. This is especially true in the West where we try to create a democratic system in which to live. With the Federal elections coming up at the end of this month activism and civil disobedience become even more important. It is after all the citizens who can control the politicians, if we are willing to stand up and say something and give our Members of Parliament some direction. This does not just mean merely voting, but talking with politicians to ensure that they understand what is important to all of us, especially the students. Otherwise, we might as well sign over our Charter to the corporations and let them tear it apart.