From time to time I ask total strangers about their impressions of the progressive movement. Thus far, without exception, their concerns about certain weaknesses in that movement echo my own.
Last week a young woman got into my taxi and asked what had just happened with the weekly Monday-night protest about the recent killing of a man at a BART subway station by a police officer. I reported that the organizers of the protests had decided to stop disrupting BART service and instead simply distribute leaflets. She replied with a comment about how such disruptions are no way to gain public support.
I said, “Yes. You wonder why it took them so long to figure that out. But when I was young and stupid I took that approach myself.”
She responded, “So did I when I was in college.”
“What issues did you work on?”
“Issues related to education.”
“Are you still engaged in activism?”
“No. I’m not.”
“Do you wish you were?”
“Yes, I definitely do.”
“What might prompt you or encourage you to get engaged?”
“I’m not sure. That’s a good question.”
Then after a long silence during which she seemed to reflect on that question, I asked, “Is there something about the approach taken by activists that discourages you?”
With strong feeling she immediately responded, “Yes. Self-righteousness. Seeing everything in black and white. Taking the hard line.”
I then told her about my own work on these issues and she thanked me profusely for asking her those questions. She then talked about having volunteered in a program for homeless children but having got burned out after devoting several hours a week to that stressful project.
As she left my taxi, she thanked me again for my questions and said she’d be thinking about them.
Two nights later, another passenger initiated a conversation about the Sixties. She commented on how there is less activism today and people seem more “self-protective.” She said she was still somewhat active.
When I asked her if there is something about how activists operate that discourages non-activists from becoming active, she quickly said, “Adopting a very angry and antagonistic stance, rather than one that is positive and proactive.”
Those interactions reveal real problems with traditional activism and touch on tensions that are difficult to resolve. On the one hand, passionate true believers with a hard line can recruit enough people to launch a project and get media attention. Soon, however, they reach a plateau and find they need more support from the mainstream in order to change public policy, but their militant methods alienate the mainstream, whose support is critical.
My interest is with encouraging the development of new strategies that could attract disaffected concerned individuals like my taxi passengers and greatly increase the number of people engaged in activism. My goal is not to persuade militants to change. They have a role to play. Liberals and radicals need each other.
Recently I’ve focused on “compassionate politics” with an emphasis on achieving long-term systemic transformation through steady short-term incremental reforms. To my mind, to transform our social system, we must simultaneously change our institutions, our cultures, and ourselves. This process therefore necessarily involves ongoing personal growth, which many consider spiritual.
One form of self-improvement that seems critical to address is the arrogance to which my taxi passengers referred.
It is my belief that activist organizations need to consciously foster the growth of supportive communities that are clearly, explicitly dedicated to self-development as well as political action.
But finding progressive-minded people with whom I can collaborate on these issues is not easy. With their focus on the outer world of public policy, progressive political activists largely ignore the inner world of spirit and feelings and build organizations that are impersonal machines. They seem to think that their passion and their ideas will suffice.
And individuals who are engaged in personal or spiritual development shy away from politics.
So I’m beginning to seriously wonder if I should shift my methodology somehow. I’m definitely open to new ideas.
Many political activists are becoming more open about their dedication to personal/spiritual growth. Perhaps some day these seeds will bloom and caring progressive communities dedicated to both personal growth and political action will flourish.
I published a slightly different version of this essay on Wade’s Weekly on September 4, 2011.