“Every single thing you do is politics, because the interaction of human beings is politics writ large.”
“It is not necessary to accept the choices handed down to you by life as you know it,” young Hunter S. Thompson wrote in his exquisite letter of advice to a friend. In fact, life — the world — only ever changes when we actively refuse to accept its givens and choose to build new alternatives. But what separates those who unblinkingly accept the world as it is, with all its injustices and imperfections, from those who tirelessly labor to make it better, in the most actionable, least pageant-like sense of the aspiration? That’s what human rights activist Jody Williams, recipient of the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize and author of the infinitely inspiring My Name Is Jody Williams: A Vermont Girl’s Winding Path to the Nobel Peace Prize (public library), explores in this wonderful animated short from the RSA:
What has fueled my passion for change really is righteous indignation at injustice. Anybody can be an agent of change…
People think that if they can’t tackle all of the world’s problems and make it all better overnight, there’s no purpose. I totally disbelieve that. I believe that every action really does contribute to change, and the power that each and every one of us has to decide whether we want to be participants in creating the world we live in or we choose — and this is also a choice that we pretend isn’t — we choose to do nothing.
People say, “Oh, I’m not interested in politics.” Every single thing you do is politics, because the interaction of human beings is politics writ large.
I believe that we have to feel empowered to make that choice. And if we choose to feel passionate about something and do nothing, it is a choice — you’ve chosen to do nothing. And, believe me, there are other people who will step into that gap, take your power, and use to accomplish what they want.
What is an activist? My sense — and I think it is most clear in this stirring memoir — is that an activist is someone who cannot help but fight for something. That person is not usually motivated by a need for power or money or fame, but in fact is driven slightly mad by some injustice, some cruelty, some unfairness, so much so that he or she is compelled by some internal moral engine to act to make it better.
I have often wondered at what moment one becomes an activist. Are we born with the activist gene, and then some event or incident catalyzes it into being? Is it a deaf brother, abused and cruelly treated? Is it witnessing unkindness to those we love or being raped or beaten and undone ourselves and surviving through the love of others and then feeling compelled to give back the same?
Many of us are accidental activists. We didn’t necessarily or consciously choose to devote our lives to ending war or violence against women or racism or poverty or sexual oppression, or to fighting for the environment, but our survival became so clearly wrapped in the struggle, we had no choice.
The big question, of course, is why do some shut down and move away in the face of power and oppression and others move into action? I think if we could resolve this riddle, we would unlock millions of sleeping activists who could possibly help save this world and transform suffering. Some of the secrets are found in this book.
Also from the RSA, see Brené Brown on vulnerability and the difference between empathy and sympathy.