This one’s for the activists and for those who want to be activists. Ann Arbor is quite the liberal community, often referred to as a progressive’s utopia. It’s a place of many people who feel strongly about an issue and want to change something in the world. After all, the early inception of the Peace Corps is our claim to fame.
Over the years, I’ve found that here you can find a place for pretty much everything and everyone. The list of student organizations is never-ending, and there’s an entire subset of organizations dedicated to spreading awareness about social justice or political issues.
From feeding the squirrels to more serious causes such as sustainability, tuition equality, raising awareness about sexual assault or writing letters to urge the stop of human rights abuses around the world — most of the time it’s breathtaking to see the passion and determination students have to change the world.
But I’ve also noticed that sometimes it’s easy to get lost in all of the causes. Sometimes with the mindset of being an activist comes this tendency — need, even — to challenge everything. Across campus, there’s this idea that you can’t simply be an activist for one cause; to stand up against injustice means standing up against all injustice — big or small.
I beg to differ on this point. The fact of the matter is that not all injustices are created equal.
The problem isn’t that you shouldn’t fight for something you believe in. The problem is that if you call yourself a feminist but spend time fighting for a woman’s right to open her own door, you’re going to trivialize the larger issues at play. It’s hard to have a serious conversation about women’s rights and cultural undertones that impact how woman are seen in society if the conversation keeps hinging on whether or not a woman should take offense to someone holding the door open for her. This conversation isn’t likely to win someone over to your side or create awareness about the larger issue of gender norms, it’s simply going to elicit stereotyping statements like “feminists are angry women that hate everything.”
Latching onto a small issue instead of tackling the larger issue at hand alienates the very people you are trying to convince: those who oppose your cause to begin with. They’re then are able to write it off as something trivial.
There’s merit to the argument that it’s the bigger injustice that influences these smaller daily actions and that we should raise awareness at every possible opportunity. But there’s a problem when we expect to change people’s minds about bigger issues by focusing on smaller problems. In reality, we should be changing their minds about the larger matters first and the smaller things will follow.
Even if we change small things — if we get everyone to recycle plastic bottles, or not use “guys” to describe a group of people or to hold doors open for anyone, we’re only changing one small aspect of their behavior. The mindset remains the same. This isn’t in any way to devalue the impact of these small changes, but alone they aren’t enough. It’s not enough to get people to do something if they don’t understand why they’re doing it.
There are many ways to be an activist. We don’t always have to feel the need to fight against the world to do so. Social change isn’t something that can be imposed upon people. Just telling people to change their behavior doesn’t always do justice to your cause. More often than not, it’s important to change people’s mindsets, to give them more information that will change how they view an issue instead of forcing them to change how they live.
Harsha Nahata can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.