Recently I was at the Amnesty International New Zealand section Annual Meeting in Auckland. It was an opportunity to catch up with contacts and the friends that I have made over the years. It was also an opportunity to meet and get to know new comers, and find out what made them join Amnesty International.
Whilst at the workshops the day after the Annual Meeting, participants were asked to think about social barriers that may prevent people from joining Amnesty International. Quite a range of barriers were mentioned. Some were quite common ones such as not having time, or wanting to carry out actions, but not be involved with the organization of them. Others were about a perception that one needs to know things about human rights to be involved, or that there are enough people already involved.
But there were a few that got my interest. These were more about concerns about how people perceive Amnesty International, and human rights activism. Some of the concerns were that it might affect employment opportunities if people joined Amnesty. Others thought that their family would frown on their involvement, and that Amnesty was a sort of rabble rousing organization of some sort. Still more were concerned that it would clash with the cultural values that they were brought up to abide by.
I accept that a person from China, who has not been exposed to the freedom of association and expression that is permitted in New Zealand, will find the actions of N.G.O.’s quite confronting. They will not be used to seeing protesters in the streets or speeches being given, and may be concerned that if they stick around they might be seen doing something that may get them arrested. In China that would be a high probability. As many Chinese living in New Zealand still have family in China, where authorities block Facebook, severely screen with an active firewall certain words and phrases in search engines, it is a particularly difficult issue to raise.
But what about when it is family who have a conservative viewpoint that social activism is some sort of incitement to do things that are not good. What about when relatives think that a persons social activism, standing up for what they believe is right is somehow an affront to a law abiding society? This is where conflict may arise. Aside from a change in societal values over the years, the deterioration of the global geopolitical environment and the advent of digital media means that the black and white television clips of the Vietnam War have been replaced by full colour/audio that can manifest in many formats and instead of taking hours to develop, can be uploaded to the internet in a matter of minutes. The awareness that goes with digital media means that it is much easier to get hold of information that might be contrary to the “official line”, challenging the status quo that older generations might have been taught to accept.
Activism is an all-encompassing word to describe the entire continuum line of actions and activities, level of involvement and impact. Some of them are highly visual such as this Amnesty International protest. Others such as letter writing and signing petitions have low visibility. That is not to say low visibility actions are less effective, as they are often the easiest to organize, and can be done time and again. However, low visibility actions tend to take longer to bear results. The higher visibility ones such as staging street demonstrations, vigils or similar may require more resources and personnel time, but get a lot of attention quickly.
The nature of social activism depends on the organization’s philosophy. Not all are into disruptive and/or potentially violent or law breaking activities – Amnesty International has a long history of largely peaceful activism. Some actions are very well organized, get carried out peacefully and effect change with no violence whatsoever. Others can be more disruptive or distracting (such as Greenpeace pop up signs at a motor sports event protesting drilling in the Arctic – not necessarily illegal (I actually thought it was quite funny)). Or it could be resource taxing such as Greenpeace members scaling the towers of oil refineries to protest climate change, which required the police to talk them down, and they were arrested and charged with trespass and endangering lives. Others are very poorly thought out to the extent that they should never have gone ahead – Greenpeace’s desecration of the Nazca Lines is a great example.
So, before you think “that activist should be at work contributing to the economy” or “I should report these rabble rousers to the authorities”, stop and find out why they are protesting. Say “Hi” and ask questions. The answers may not be what you want to hear, but that does not make them any less. The cause that they are carrying out their action on behalf of might be something you have sympathies for, even if you disagree with the manner of their protests.