what we can do #1

For whatever reasons, you might not be able to engage in formal political activism, or you may just not want to. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be active, or that you’re powerless to influence politics. If you can see that contemporary politics is broken and you don’t know what to do or how to help, there are crucial, important ways you can make a contribution.

The most basic direct action is simply talking to people. It’s one of the most accessible ways to influence politics and society. Engaging family, friends, people at work, people you socialise with, and even strangers, will help us move towards a better culture of politics.

It might seem insignificant, as though it will have no influence on the wider culture and politics but it can be hugely powerful both on the personal and cultural levels.

On the personal level, if you’re persistent and thoughtful, tailoring your style to your audience and the situation wherever you can, over time you can gently change the way individual people think about things.

And this adds up. The more grown-up conversations each of us have about politics with other people, the more conversations about politics we have as a society. We can help to change our culture, if we commit to it.

The main strength of this sort of activism is that almost anyone can do it.  It requires no resources. The greatest barrier most of us have is sheer social discomfort. And yes, it can be difficult sometimes to know what to say or how to say it. The topic might be one you find discomforting. But with practice and persistence, it can be done.

Talk about politics. Talk about social issues. Talk about what you care about, what you’re concerned about, what you think needs changing about how we manage society. Have conversations with people about politics and explicitly state your doubts at the rise of callousness and unpleasantness, or the lack of respect given to science and research. Whatever you care about, speak to people about it. It doesn’t have to be the only thing you talk about, but if you care then you need to make it something you *do* talk about regularly. Change minds one at a time.

It’s not too ambitious either, because the point isn’t really to get people to agree with your own opinions on individual subjects. You can change a mind by gently influencing them away from extremist views, shallow politics and false arguments. It’s not so much about changing what they think, as changing how they think.

Don’t give in to rhetorical tricks or cheap point-scoring. This is sometimes the most difficult part of “talking activism”. Those sort of shallow tactics are an unhelpful, but pretty widespread in our conversations about politics. In fact the normality of cheap arguments is a significant part of the mess we’re currently in, politically. The dominance of rhetorical tricks and point-scoring in our language is connected to the dominance of charlatans and demagogues in our politics.

Remember that people can repeat bad faith arguments without realising the false or duplicitous logic. It’s crucial to understand whether the person you’re talking to knows they’re playing games or not. If they know they’re taking the piss, stop bothering with the conversation. Don’t waste your time. Point it out, and move on. Hopefully it can also act as a deterrent for them – if someone’s ignored when they try to play games, eventually they’ll have to find better ways of communicating. Also, however, fuck that shit don’t waste your time on dickheads and trolls.

But most people who repeat false arguments are simply repeating what they’ve picked up in other conversations.  The proliferation of shallow arguments is driven by a dedicated and calculated tabloid propaganda industry. Propaganda works by getting people to believe lies, so it’s no surprise so many people sincerely believe the bullshit, so be patient. It takes time, care, and careful explanations to get people to understand that the logic their arguments are based on isn’t as strong as they’d thought. But people can be helped to understand.

You have to accept that the change won’t be instantaneous. It might take a number of conversations over many weeks before they start to recognise the rhetorical games that are being played by the tabloid arguments. But with patience, determination, and careful conversation it can be done. Have faith that simply encouraging more reasoned, thoughtful conversation about social and political issues will help change someone’s mind in the long run.

What can make it uncomfortable is that in order to be effective, you have to give other people space to express their own opinions their own way – and you have to listen to them. It requires that you let them speak and sometimes it requires biting your tongue while they express bigoted views. This doesn’t mean you should let them express bigoted views or promote hatred unchallenged. But if they’re sincere, and if they don’t see the harm in what they’re saying, letting them finish and showing you’ve heard them is going to encourage them to listen to your replies.

Understand who you’re talking to, where they’re coming from. It’s crucially important to distinguish between people who hold problematic or bigoted views unconsciously, and those who know how unpleasant their views are and embrace it. There are a few people who consciously hold destructive, violent, bigoted views. For most of these people it’s about power more than social beliefs. Fuck them right off. Don’t waste your time speaking to them. Fuck that shit. But most people are genuine, sincere, wanting the best, wanting the world to be better – even people who believe things which you think of as distasteful, unpleasant, discriminatory, bigoted. Speak to these people. Speak to the ordinary bigots.

The difficulty is finding the patience to let them express unpleasant opinions. It’s uncomfortable, it’s discomforting. It can make your skin crawl. But unfortunately that’s the deal. If you want to move them away from those beliefs, then you need them to listen to you. Which means you have to be willing to listen to them.

This idea that “all bigots should be shouted at” is wrong. People prefer shouting at bigots because it’s easier than thinking through the explanations and arguments. It’s easier to shout at someone who holds views that make you uncomfortable than to deal with that discomfort and talk to them.

But arguing that all bigots are the same and should be treated the same way is wrong. It’s wrong because it lumps all bigots into the same category of bigotedness. It is wrong because it entirely erases any chance of treating each individual bigot as an individual who will respond to patricular strategies of conversation. It’s wrong because it prevents us from pushing back against the bigotry in an effective way.

It might make us feel better to just shout at people whose views we find unpleasant, but if we really care about making the world less intolerant, less unpleasant – then it is also on us to sacrifice our own egotistical self-satisfaction. “Some bigots should be shouted at, and some bigots should be spoken to, and we should be careful to distinguish between them” would be a more helpful statement.

People are different. They will respond differently to different communication strategies. But the people who are unconsciously bigoted or unpleasant will generally not respond well to being shouted at. It’s difficult. It’s uncomfortable. But if you genuinely want to make a difference it is necessary to have genuine conversations with these people. Accept that their good faith opinions are held in good faith. But try and gently nudge them into thinking about the wider implications of narrow politics or simplistic solutions.

The aim is not to make them agree with you, or to abandon their beliefs and opinions. This is an unrealistic ambition. People aren’t going to simply abandon their sincere beliefs because of a single conversation with someone. The aim is to get them to think for themselves just a little bit more carefully, a little bit more clearly. The aim is to raise the level of political discourse, to demonstrate that a better way of talking about politics is possible.

An example would be when someone talks about immigration increasing the strain on public services – remind them that if public services are under strain, then they need more investment. It’s not immigration which caused the government to cut funding. If the response is that “we can’t afford to pay for public services”, remind them that we’re a wealthy nation and we can afford it, except for the fact that the wealthiest in society are draining wealth from the economy, hoarding it, and not putting enough back in to the society that they’re benefiting from.

If you have the chance, point out that the media – which is working to blame immigration for the pressure on public services – happens to be owned by the same wealth class which are the real cause of the problems with public services. Speak about how privatisation will only result in us having to pay more for worse services.

Do so with good humour and respect for the fact that they might not agree. Accept that they probably won’t agree but engage anyway. Engage them on a personal level to show that differences of opinion don’t need to result in antagonism and anger. The point isn’t necessarily to get them to agree with you. It’s to nudge the conversation to be a little more thoughtful and carefully considered.

People aren’t going to simply abandon their sincere beliefs because of a single conversation with someone. But they might begin to think differently, just a little. And the more conversations like this they have, the more they’ll think about their beliefs and question them. Have faith that over time, through the course of many conversations about various political issues, people’s minds can be changed profoundly.

But it can only work with mass participation. That means not just the people already engaged with politics, it means the people who aren’t active, who know there are problems with what’s happening but who wouldn’t normally raise the subject with strangers.

So, if you despair at the current state of politics and society in general, and if you believe yourself to be someone who genuinely cares: it is time for you to act. And here is the most accessible way you can act.

There is a pressing moral and pragmatic duty on all of us to do whatever we can to wrest back our cultures from the brink of social and environmental disaster. This means we must insist upon rational, reasonable, ethical politics.