So last video we talked about some of the ways to not effectively engage in civic action. We talked about grandstanding, and being a jerk, and microfocus, and transient activism. Now I’d like to talk about some of the “do’s,” some ways that you can engages in effective, rational civic action that might actually accomplish something more than flash-in-the-pan attention or getting you arrested for being a public nuisance.
DO: Engage Consistently
A few months ago I was involved in some local civic action to prompt the local city council to pass a resolution opposing a proposed Arizona-style immigration law here in Michigan.
We went to the council meeting, a few dozen people got up and said their piece, the council voted in favor…and the place cleared out.
Nobody stuck around to hear other business. (Almost) nobody spoke to thank the council for their vote. Nobody took advantage of already being there to observe the broader meeting and learn more about how their local government works. They came for the one thing they were fired up about, and then they left.
That did not sit well with the council, and honestly it didn’t sit well with me either. It was disappointing. I mean, I’m not angry or resentful about it, especially since it involved a lot of young people who had really never been politically involved before. But it was still like…jeez, guys, you think you just show up one time, get what you want, and then split? That’s just self-interest, there’s no community or movement in that.
That kind of approach leaves people feeling like those who engaged in it are a lot less concerned with real change than with just “give me what I want and I’ll go away.”
On the other hand, when you show up consistently and have meaningful questions, observations, and positions regarding other business in front of the council, they tend to think you as less a rabble-rouser and more a seriously engaged citizen.
Yes, it’s very edgy and cool to just blow this off with some omg who cares what they think POWER TO THE PEEPUL attitude, but the reality is that you are there to influence what they think. Those people are there working for you, the citizen. Their job is to assess your will, balance it against the will, needs, and rights of other citizens, and attempt to formulate public public policy based on their best judgment. Your job – your duty, as a citizen, is to influence that judgment as best you see fit for the benefit of the greater community.
DO: Get Educated
This is always where I start losing people, because this idea doesn’t play in to the spoiled “quick-fix” mentality. In order to solve a problem, you have to understand the problem. In order to refute deceptive propaganda, you need to not only have the truth in hand, but you need the academic skills to recognize the difference between “what you want to hear” and “the facts.”
The uncomfortable and unfortunate reality is that sometimes, the facts aren’t what you want to hear. Ron Paul and his ilk are great for this. LET’S ABOLISH THE FEDERAL RESERVE! ABOLISH THE IRS! ABOLISH THE EPA! Right, sure. Let’s make the current budget crisis look like distilled serenity, let’s play bread-and-circuses where we all get everything and nobody has to pay for it, let’s turn corporations and industry loose to turn our lakes and streams and rivers into flaming carcinogenic pools of death, because otherwise it means wah wah wah the evil government is stealing from us and we are tax slaves. Power to the people!
*spit* What a load of crap. But people buy in to it all day long, because they don’t get the facts. They just listen to something they hear on TV one time and assume that it must be true, so long as it agrees with what they already wanted to hear. Then they go repeat it at a public meeting and wonder why nobody’s taking them seriously.
DO: Be concise
I’m probably a hypocrite for saying this because I never met a sentence I didn’t like better as a paragraph, but say what you have to say and then get out of the way and let someone else have their turn. Many formal or official meeting situations will have a time limit – for instance, my local city council allows people to speak for four minutes at a time, at two different times during the meeting. This is actually quite a bit of time and allows for some actual dialogue, rather than just people screaming at each other.
DO: Have some respect
Even if you have no respect for the individual people, show some respect for their office and the overall process of coming together as adults to find solutions. Just “screaming at your representatives and Senators” is a great way to ensure that your representatives and Senators – and any other adult who happens to observe - think you’re an immature, attention-seeking jackass who cares a lot less about finding viable solutions to substantive problems than you do about getting your face on television.
Remember: even the “bad guys” don’t usually think of themselves as “the bad guys.” They think they’re working hard to make the world a better place, just like you do. Hurling insults and screaming and being an obnoxious dick isn’t going to win friends and influence people. Yes, there’s a time and place for passion, strong language, and straightforward, unflinching criticism. That time and place is not “every time you open your mouth.”
DO: Pick your battles
Every issue in the world is not the last great stand of democracy. If you act like every little thing is a cataclysmic crisis, nobody’s going to take you seriously – see the fable of the boy who cried wolf. Have a sense of perspective – why should someone else care about what you care about? What are you doing to convince them of that? Is your logic sound? Are your facts in order? Have you considered how you would argue against your own point of view, and taken steps to neutralize opposing arguments before they’re made? Make it count.
One of the problems with “let’s make a big fuss all day every day” is that it becomes routine and commonplace, both to those participating and those observing…and when those participating don’t treat every chance they have like it’s something special, they make amateur mistakes.
DO: Bring your “A” game
I’ve kind of said this in several ways already, but it’s worth emphasizing: if you’ve got a chance to speak and be heard, you owe it to those listening to make sure that what you are saying has substance and validity. It’s all well and good to show up at a town hall or city council meeting and scream “JOBS NOT CUTS” (as a modified version of the US Uncut call-to-action I mentioned earlier in this series suggests), but what does it mean? It’s an empty platitude – there are things that need to be cut, including a lot of waste and excess in programs like Medicaid, food stamps, and the Department of Education. This three-word slogan doesn’t address that. It also doesn’t address the fundamental enslavement mentality that’s involved with the idea that “a job” is everybody’s answer to life. Some people don’t need jobs, but the opportunity to create jobs, or to be able to make a living in pursuit of their own valid interests and priorities. Reducing that to a three-word slogan might make for good TV, but it leaves thinking people with the impression that you have a very shallow understanding of how the world works.
In addition, disruptive tactics shouldn’t be employed unless they’re necessary. It’s one thing if you have already tried to “play by the rules” and the powers that be won’t let you get a word in edgewise – then it’s time for a show of public strength, to let those powers know that their power is derived from your consent. But to just start out of the gate with screaming and sloganeering and shouting just makes you look like you care more about getting your face on TV than about making a real difference.
If you start out of the gate with screaming and hollering and radical behavior, you’re going to have a real short race…and you’re going to lose. Yes, sometimes it is necessary to go that route. When you can’t get your voice heard through proper channels, when you aren’t allowed to speak your peace at town halls or other public meetings, when you have something of value to add and you’re not being allowed…that is when it becomes appropriate to engage in more radical behavior. If you start like that right off the bat, the mainstream is going to ignore you and blow you of on the assumption that you’re just another hand-waving fool looking for attention because your parents didn’t give you enough.
Act like an adult. Forget the chest-thumping crap – unless your name is Zack de la Rocha, that isn’t going to impress anybody but maybe your girlfriend, if she’s under the age of 15, and if you think you aren’t in this to impress anybody you got no business being active in the first place, because it’s all about impressing people. That’s the whole purpose of civic action, to convince other people that your way of thinking is better than the other guy. Any random jerk can go scream at people. Changing people’s minds…now that takes skill, effort, and dedication. Any obnoxious child can tear systems down and break things.
It takes focus, maturity, intellect, drive, and commitment to fix them.