Your problem isn’t important enough.
“I don’t actually disagree with what this protest is trying to achieve, but I’m going to loudly attack them for wasting their time on a petty goal.”
That was the main thing I took away from this article. (NSFW images) But that’s simply today. I’ve seen arguments like this repeated ad nauseam in Progressive and activist circles over the past thirteen years.
The problem that frequently leaves me disillusioned with the activist left is their propensity to turn on themselves. Sometimes it’s internal infighting about methods. But just as often, it turns to passive aggressive criticism about a cause or issue that someone else has chosen to devote themselves to.
To take this off of any cultural third rails for the moment, let’s say that, after a rainy weekend (remember those?) the road in front of my house has developed a rather large pothole in it. So, I do what any self respecting citizen might do, and call the city to let them know that they should send a road crew down to patch it when they can.
“But wait!” my neighbor says as he pops his head in through my window, “In the next town over, there was an entire road that was riddled with potholes! Why aren’t you doing something about them?”
Nevertheless, I make my phone call. And when another neighbor hears about it, they grumble to themselves, “Well some towns in Alaska don’t even have highway access.”
These kinds of arguments are silly for two reasons. First, people tend to take immediate action to address issues that directly affect them, even if it’s just an inconvenience that besets them. Second, most of us are fundamentally limited in our reach. While ISIS is deplorable in just about every way imaginable, there’s nevertheless a very small tangible impact I can have as an individual on policies relating to that part of the world.
This analogy really only goes so far, because it deals with a concrete policy issue instead of an amorphous social issue. Many issues of social justice can’t simply be legislated. There needs to be a sizeable shift in our nation—and world’s—culture. This doesn’t happen overnight, nor does it happen with one brisk protest, or awareness campaign.
These broad cultural shifts are accomplished incrementally. Sometimes through issues that, when taken individually, may appear to be trite. But when taken together, these apparently disparate movements can actually intersect to make a broader cultural push. So before judging a single protest on its own, instead assess how it might fit into incremental shifts in broader attitudes.
But simply citing “more important problems” doesn’t actually serve as a coherent counterargument to something that another activist is doing. It doesn’t even accomplish anything to effectively rally support for those “more important” issues. Indeed, I would argue that they have a negative effect. Arguing that one person’s passions aren’t [fill in the blank] enough just sit in their own miasma of bitterness, slowly turning people off from the notion that change is even worth fighting for.
Of course negativity shouldn’t be removed from progressive movements altogether. Identifying aspects of society that are deleterious to people’s lives should absolutely be publicly identified. But to simply denigrate a person’s effort, particularly if you are not directly offering constructive criticism to them, is the only kind of armchair activism that is actually harmful. To do otherwise is to simply make yourself feel or look better at the expense of others, who are doing their best to identify problems and make an effort too. And even if someone is misguided, why we should automatically assume the worst about her or his motives is beyond me.
Social justice advocacy and activism should be a positive, fundamentally reassuring space. If an activist is concerned that the major issue they’re passionate about isn’t getting enough traction, there is no shortage of creative ways to bring immediacy into their goals and make it appealing to others.
If you want to change the world, work to support your ideological allies. Don’t micromanage their passions.