Thursday, October 14, 2010

Activism, Advocacy, Ethics, and How to not be an Asshole

So an advocate, and activist  and an asshole walk into a bar... There is no punchline here, just my growing realization  that there is such a huge difference between advocacy and activism. I think our society is really getting these two activities confused. Everyone likes to think they make good choices in life. Some people even like their choices so  much that they want everyone else to make those same choices, regardless of whether those choices are a good fit for those other people's lives.

The difference for me lies withing the expectation of the A-person. An advocate seeks to inform, educate and most importantly, EMPOWER others to make well-researched decisions based on balanced, unbiased data. An activist most often seeks to have everyone make the decision that they, the activist agree with, regardless of the individual circumstances of the decision-maker. A lack of ethics leads activists to masquerade as advocates. A perfect example of this would be a Crisis Pregnancy center (anti-choice activism) giving a woman false information regarding the safety of abortion - they are giving information, but it is not the kind  of data that an empowered decision can be made from.  

One step farther from misguided activism is just plain being an asshole - bullying, derisive  behavior meant to demonize those who are 'other'. Clinic protesters, 'intactivists' who post abusive Internet comments, sanctimonious parents who pity children born in a different manner than the way their children were born.  These behaviors do nothing to further a cause, and most often alienate the very people that are trying to be reached. 

I've come to believe that if I feel so strongly about  an issue that I can no longer advocate - that is, detach my self from an outcome I disagree with, it is time to move to useful activism. That is, taking concrete steps to change the cultural and societal framework, or legality of the issue at hand. For example, I truly believe that routine infant circumcision is not a 'choice' for a parent to make. I find it disturbing that my daughter's rights to bodily integrity are protected but my son's rights are not. So instead of being an asshole online, or in person, I do what I can to change the laws regarding male genital mutilation. And until certain frameworks are changed, I advocate by sharing information about the issue. Because until the larger societal issues are addressed (think formula company lobbies and parental leave in regards to breastfeeding, myths regarding male cleanliness and prepuce function for  MGM, hospital maternity policies driven by liability rather than informed consent in birth), individuals should not be crucified for making decisions based on bad information, habit, or pure survival. 

These are  really large issues, enough to make my head spin. I think though, moving forward as an advocate and an educator, it's important for me to reflect and examine these issues carefully. 


  1. Great points.

    In my late teens and twenties, I was a budding political activist, full of toxic mixture of high ideals of nonviolence and equality and a whole lot of suppressed rage I wasn't yet able to deal with. As such, I was talking peace and love while boiling over with hostility. Unfortunately, this kind of mixture seems incredibly common on all sides of the activist spectrum--from hate-filled peace activists to abortion clinic bombers for Jesus. Ultimately, effective advocacy needs to start very very locally--with looking into ourselves.

  2. I feel like the breastfeeding sphere falls into the trap of forgetting that while of course breast milk is best for babies, not everyone can do it. And then instead of saying, hmm, what cultural and societal attitudes can we change that will promote wider acceptance of breastfeeding, you get people yelling "Formula is poison!" and "Bottle feeders are just lazy!" And other mean stuff. I had to explain to someone the other day who was saying really nasty stuff about women who don't breastfeed - women who's circumstances she knew nothing about - that insulting people wasn't going to inspire them to change their minds.