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Do you remember when music went digital? Overnight, everyone was a DJ. The same thing happened with photography: once film and darkrooms were replaced by digital cameras, every other person you met claimed to be a bloody photographer. 

In many ways, this is the inevitable result of digitisation: activities that once involved training, practice and skill were superseded by the touch of a button, with more and more people deciding to give them a whirl.

Sadly, it seems as if “activism” has followed the same path, but with far more serious consequences than a badly mixed track or a poorly composed photograph.

At its best, activism is a cornerstone of democracy. Activists, many of whom have spent years becoming experts in their field, can raise awareness of injustices visited on society’s most vulnerable, lobbying politicians and journalists, and effecting lasting change. 

The suffragettes were activists, so were the American civil rights leaders in the latter half of the last century. Similarly, on the 50th anniversary of the Gay Liberation Front, here in Britain many of us who sit under the LGBTQ+ umbrella have activists to thank for the equality that we enjoy today. The world would be a poorer, harsher place were it not for those people who dedicate their lives to those who have drawn society’s short straw.

The suffragettes: this is what activism looks like.

And yet, in the same way that someone with a smartphone and some free editing software does not a photographer make, somebody with a Twitter account and time on their hands does not do the noble and honourable practice of activism any favours. 

If activism has any purpose at all, it is to convince politicians, business, the media and wider society of the justness of a particular cause and to argue, cajole and campaign to help bring about change. This is not easy: many people close their minds to issues affecting those about whom they have little or no knowledge and, at the same time, vested interests often use their financial heft to stave off any grass roots campaigning. In the last few decades, we have witnessed tobacco firms claiming that their products did not cause cancer, oil companies maintaining that they did not cause environmental harm and, closer to home, religious groups asserting that equal marriage would bring about the collapse of society. In all these cases, it is activism that has challenged these “truths” and, ultimately, helped to chuck them in the bin marked “total bollocks”.

Many people who now describe themselves as “activists” seem to prefer common abuse and personal attack to measured argument, doing far more harm than good.

The 2019 general election was one of the nastiest and most bitter ever fought on these islands with appalling behaviour from supporters of both the main parties in England and all three of them in Scotland, and it is self-styled Labour activists who have to claim some responsibility for their party’s trouncing at the polls. Anyone expressing even the mildest of misgivings about Labour’s manifesto was often met with the rejoinder “Fuck off and join the Tories”, helping to deliver the Conservative Party a whopping 80 seat majority.

Nobody skilled in campaigning, lobbying and activism would ever behave like this; it is completely counter-productive and reveals not only a lack of intellectual rigour but also, it has to be said, some rather nasty character traits.

We cannot ignore the issue du jour within the queer community: self-ID for trans people. You may well have legitimate questions about – say – male-bodied people in women’s sport or in women’s prisons, but you won’t change anyone’s mind by deliberately setting out to deadname, misgender and insult our trans siblings.

Meanwhile, those who campaign for trans rights are unlikely to recruit a single convert if “suck on my lady dick” is the best argument they can devise during a social media spat. It’s not exactly Oscar Wilde, is it?

The mistake made by so many of these angry keyboard warriors is to assume that your opponent is your enemy. I can reveal that Tories are not “LITERALLY NAZIS”, they’re just people with a different view of how to run the country. It’s also fair to say that the actor Eddie Redmayne, who publicly disagreed with JK Rowling’s views on self-ID but, at the same time, condemned the abuse aimed at the Harry Potter author, probably did not deserve to have “Fuck Eddie Redmayne” trending on Twitter. The list goes on: anti-racism is among the most noble of causes but shouting that “ALL WHITE PEOPLE ARE RACIST” is unlikely to change hearts and minds.

Cancel culture, chillingly reminiscent of Orwell’s 1984 where the protagonist Winston Smith’s job was to expunge all references to those who had fallen foul of “The Party”, has also got out of hand. In what universe is it okay to call for someone with whom you disagree to be hounded out of their jobs? What’s next? Book burning? 

Book burning: not a million miles away from cancel culture.

Nothing ever got better as a result of throwing insults around. Nobody ever changed their mind after seeing that most dispiriting of hashtags, #NoDebate, and I’m pretty sure that no-one has ever altered their political allegiance because an intellectually-challenged keyboard warrior called them a fascist.

Like demonstrators who find their cause undermined by a handful of infiltrators hell bent on violence, real campaigners must be tearing their hair out. How frustrating must it be to have your principles sabotaged by people who think that activism is about hurling abuse at everyone who disagrees? 

That is not activism. Rather, it is an excuse for the angry, abusive and inadequate to bully and harass others – mainly women, as it happens – while shielding under the carapace of a “worthy cause”. And until these people – mainly men, as it happens – learn to engage and argue without recourse to offence and threats of violence, they really should stop now and leave the proper activism to the grown ups.

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Rob Harkavy

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