Why would an ordinary person become an activist? Why would an ordinary person risk being fired or arrested or killed for some cause?

Walmart employees and fast food workers know that trying to organize a union or going on strike will likely get you fired. During the Arab Spring, the demonstrators knew that they were likely to get beaten and possibly killed. During the US civil rights movement in the 1960s the activists knew they were likely to be attacked and some of them were killed.

There are at least two different pathways or mechanisms that lead to activism: 1. The Surprised Hero and 2. The Intentional Activist.

The Surprised Hero

Recent research shows that a sense of fairness and justice is deeply engrained in us and that it is already developed in children by age two. When we personally experience injustice, it causes outrage, anger, despair. There is a large psychic cost involved in being treated unfairly.  The Surprised Hero is a person who gets so fed up with an unjust situation that they suddenly say “No. I won’t stand for it.”

Some people say,  “I got sick and tired of being afraid … I’m not going to be afraid any more.”

Others say, “I’m not taking it anymore, I’m a human being and I want fairness.”

And finally, some say, “They may kill me, but they are not going to stop me … I will be treated with dignity and respect.”

I had a personal experience that illustrates the point. Some years ago I returned from a trip abroad and, coming through customs, was arrested (it later turned out that there was a data entry error and I was not wanted for anything). The arresting officer handcuffed me and, in the process of searching me, turned my pants pockets inside out. He then proceeded to lead me through Dulles International Airport, in handcuffs and with my pants pockets inside out and sticking out.

After we had gone a short way, I stopped walking and said “Please put my pockets back.”

The policeman tugged on my arm and said, “No. Keep walking.”

I said “I’m not walking until you put the pockets back.”

He raised his hand and I thought he was going to strike me. I also noticed that there was no one else in sight at the moment and I remember thinking that this was a bad place to be making demands because there were no witnesses.

After several seconds with both of us just standing there glaring at each other, I said, “I’m a human being and want to be treated as one. You turned the pockets out, you can put them back.”

The policeman put my pockets back and we continued without further incident. At the time, I was not sure why this was so important, I did not understand why I was risking a beating to get my pockets put back. I think that the injustice of it all just really got to me. Not only had I been arrested when I was totally innocent of any wrongdoing, but the policeman was treating me like I was scum. I wanted to be treated with dignity and respect and was willing to risk a beating to get it.

For another example, Rosa Parks, when told she had to move to the back of the bus because she was black, simply refused. Rosa Parks had not planned this, it was a spur of the moment act.

The decision to resist injustice is often a spur of the moment event. The cost of submitting to injustice, of suffering daily indignities and pretending it is okay, simply becomes unbearable. The psychic cost of playing a game imposed by an unjust system is suddenly intolerable and one acts without consideration of the cost. The person is a hero but is a Surprised Hero because he or she did not know they were going to be heroic until after they acted.

The Intentional Activist

Given the beginnings of a movement such as the Arab Spring or the US Civil Rights movement, large numbers of ordinary people put their bodies and their livelihood on the line. Why would they do this when the personal cost is likely to be very high and the likely gains seem both uncertain and rather abstract?

It seems that the decision to get involved or not is driven by several factors which I label Outrage, Vision, Pathway, and Hope

Outrage. The previous section discussed the psychic costs of injustice. This provides the motivation for even considering activism. Outrage alone, however, will at most generate isolated acts, such as Rosa Parks refusing to move to the back of the bus or a black man refusing to abase himself when threatened by a racist sheriff.

Vision. People need a positive vision, an image of a potentially better situation. Martin Luther King with his “Beloved Community” provided this for the US civil rights movement. The ideal of Democracy and everyone being treated with dignity and respect provided this vision for the Arab Spring.

Path. People also need to have a positive step that they can take to move toward the vision. For some, the first step may be as small as making a phone call or writing a letter. For others, they are ready to engage in symbolic acts of resistance such as chaining themselves to a building or deliberately deciding to get arrested or joining a demonstration that they know is likely to be attacked by the authorities. It is helpful for people to see a pathway stretching from the current situation all the way to the ultimate vision. However, for most of us the pathway beyond the immediate first steps will be pretty fuzzy and that is okay. The crucial thing is an initial step which is seen as a) possible for me (given my level of courage) and b) helpful in moving toward the vision.

We humans are not so much rational beings as rationalizing beings … when we take some action, we then find good reasons why we did it. Initial small actions toward a vision make us more committed and more willing to take bigger actions. Participation in a nonviolent demonstration, for example, is strongly empowering for most people.

Hope. The Surprised Hero is not concerned with Hope, they are simply acting out of intolerable outrage. However, for most of us most of the time, Hope is critical. Some of us, the intellectual types, may do a rough cost benefit analysis with questions such as: “How bad is my current situation? How likely is it that action will improve my situation? What are the likely costs of action?” However, most of us approach these decisions emotionally and intuitively. Depending on how mad we are and how fearful we are, we either act or we quietly hide on the sidelines. In either case, the activist acts out of Hope for improving the situation.

A caveat is needed here. The suicide bomber is one who is filled with outrage, he finds his situation intolerable and believes there is no peaceful pathway toward a better situation … for him the situation is Hope-less. The Surprised Hero acts primarily out of what his own inner self demands in his situation and questions of Hope-fulness or Hope-lesness are irrelevant. The Surprised Hero acts out of outrage without consideration of Hope. The suicide bomber acts out of outrage and Hope-lesness. While the suicide bomber and the Surprised Hero both act out of outrage, the overall dynamic is totally different for the two.

When the Outrage, Vision, Path, and Hope all come together for large numbers of people, mass movements are set off by a spark. Rosa Parks refusing to move to the back of the bus was a spark. If Rosa Parks had not existed, some other spark would have set the civil rights movement afire.

In recent decades, these sparks have ignited nonviolent mass movements all over the world. The Arab Spring was only the latest in a long list of people’s movements overthrowing tyrants or simply fighting for justice, liberty, and equality.

Given the challenges facing the world today, we can be certain that the pace and scope of peoples’ movements will quicken in the years ahead.
Contact me: I love to hear from readers. Email me at cyberneticapress at gmail dot com. Thanks, Barry Clemson