Activism is beneficial, but it might not be immediate
Jan 8, 2011

Activism is beneficial, but it might not be immediate

A commonly held criticism about activism is that it is simply not effective. The inconvenience of the protests (such as gas lines from recent French protests over raising the age of retirement benefits which temporarily shut down several refineries) are experienced immediately. However, the benefits are not seen immediately seen (the age was raised regardless) and hence it is quite natural that people dislike activism and that it is commonly disparaged as a rather fringe thing to do in society.

What the key point to note is that just because the benefits - unlike the disruption costs - are not immediate, they are still very real. Indeed, it is quite rare that activism ever does yield an immediate result yet so many of the biggest movements of social change in our society from black to women's to gay rights were the result of decades longs social movements and activism. Activism works at the level of changing the public consciousness, of developing movements, of changing the priorities of the people and of the elites. So we need to think on a longer timescale.

Strategically, protests are largely deterrents. It is showing that there will be consequences of political actions (or inactions) in the form of protesting and similar activities. It is the constant threat that a protest will be politically damaging to a politician or economically damaging to a company from the changing social consciousness that protests bring that prevents these elite from engaging in unpopular actions. A politician could never enact a sufficiently extreme policy if they knew career ending protests would erupt. It is thus not the current activity that is being protested against that the real value from protests come from, it is the deterrent from future actions.

In order for the deterrent, for the threat of protests, to remain valid and effective, it must be utilized. By protesting at one environmentally damaging mining site we may not be able to prevent the mine from continuing, but we may provide a disincentive for other mine sites developing in an extremely damaging place. Over time, the aggregate actions do add up to genuine disincentives that move the goal posts of political and corporate actions in our society.

It is in this sense that one should never consider a protest a failure or a waste of time simply because it doesn't accomplish an immediate change. It is making a change - however small - in the social consciousness and in the perceived disincentives for future actions. Even if protesting the Vietnam war in the early years didn't prevent the war, it did help to build an enormous anti-war movement that undoubtably had significant influence in our society not just at finally ending Vietnam but also in the scale of future or concurrent wars and the way they were conducted.

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