Saturday, 1 November 2014

Armchair Activism: A Practical Guide

“What can Men do against such reckless hate?” – Theoden, The Two Towers

A few days ago I (finally) tweeted about my horror and disgust at the Gamergate “movement”, and about my disappointment at the relative lack of comment by most of the male gamers I know. A couple of people responded with “but what can I do” questions or comments, and I have spent some time since then thinking about that. (Also plotting out a novel and playing Saints Row IV, because I multitask.) So here are some suggestions. I have illustrated with lots of different examples, not just my current particular bugbear, because this stuff is appropriate in a lot of different situations.

Publicise. The general public does not have my awareness of Gamergate, because most people don’t have my specific interests. Even where there is public awareness of specific events, like natural disasters and war, people forget pretty quickly. This is natural and does not make them terrible human beings with all the compassion of a brick. It is just what we do. We care about things that affect us personally, and if they don’t, we care when we first hear about it and then we forget. So, keep talking about it. You don’t have to bore everyone by talking about it all the time, but mention it, link to articles or stats about it, and make it clear that it affects you – it’ll affect other people through you.

Consider getting your place of employment involved, if you work in the kind of place that likes ostentatiously giving to charity or which has some kind of interest in the issue. Companies wield a different kind of power than people do, and usually have much wider pools of people they can reach. But companies do not take action independently of their employees and owners/shareholders: someone has to be the first to suggest it. This isn’t always appropriate, but it widens your ability to publicise from a couple of hundred people up to potentially Stephen Fry-like levels of influence.

Educate yourself about the issues involved. This is especially important for social justice stuff, but the way that things are presented in the media always involves some level of prejudice and presumption, and you need to be able to identify what and how. For example, the ebola crisis in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea is widely known about, but the media concentrates on white victims, or on those who have developed the illness in Western nations. Not only is this a clear media bias based on systemic racism, it also presents a false image of the disease and its spread and consequences across the world. In order to counter that, you need to know the facts about the epidemic as a whole, and you should try to have an understanding of the social issues involved both here and in the affected countries.

This leads on to: Learn the arguments. Again, this is more specific to social justice issues, but there are always arguments, and you need to understand both sides in order to explain them to people who don’t know. So, in the case of the Fukushima disaster, a lot of people took the view that all nuclear power stations were ticking time bombs, when in actual fact the set of circumstances which led to the meltdown were really specific - tsunami and industrial negligence – and they can be protected against. But people don’t know that unless they know roughly how nuclear reactors work, and have a reasonable working understanding of probability. Most people do not have these things, hence the reaction.

In situations where you have a clear moral stance on something, you need to know what the other side is saying so that you can recognise the specific argument and respond to it effectively. Most people have not been trained in debating or in critical thinking, and there are a lot of really terrible arguments out there. It is unreasonable to expect that the people who are directly affected by the "policing" of Ferguson should have to spend their time and effort explaining Systemic Racism 101. They are too busy doing other things, like surviving and keeping themselves safe. But Systemic Racism 101 still needs to be explained. That is something you can do, and it’s helpful both as an explanation and as a gesture of support for the victims.

Complain to the relevant authorities. This isn’t always an appropriate course of action, but when it is, do it. You can write to your MP, MEP, Senator, whatever. There are specific oversight bodies which have powers to investigate, fine, or take to court –get in touch with them. You can also get in touch with other bodies which have a vested interest, like the Comic Book Legal Defence Fund, or the Trussell Trust, or a politician who is on a committee investigating a related issue. And then tell other people what you’ve done and why. Don’t make it about your feelings though – you’re not telling people so they can praise your actions, you’re telling them so that they know they can do it too. Provide a link to the method you used, to make it even easier. This is tedious to do (believe me, I know) but people are lazy and won't necessarily do it themselves.

Provide emotional support to the victims. It’s a little eye-rollingly twee to say things like “solidarity for the victims of this terrible thing”, but it’s not useless to do – you’re making your views clear, and while one voice on its own is quiet, lots of quiet voices together is a roar. Politicians and charities genuinely do gauge reactions to crises by aggregating responses on social media and blogs etc, so even if none of the victims ever see it, you’re still helping.

Provide financial support to the victims, if you can afford it. For big disasters, go through one of the big charities – they’re more reliable and more efficient. I would recommend UN bodies, MSF, or the Red Cross and Red Crescent, which are much larger and have access to specialists who can provide appropriate assistance. For private individuals, check if there is a crowdfunding appeal for them (I would exercise caution with this though, be sure to research it as thoroughly as you can), or support them through their work by sponsoring them or purchasing their products.

Providing goods instead of money can be useful, but unless you know what specifically is needed it’s generally a better idea to just donate a sum of money. Food banks much prefer to receive cash rather than tins of food, because they can buy in bulk which is cheaper, and because people get it wrong. Anyone who’s ever seen a harvest festival in a church or school knows that there are a lot of mystery cans or esoteric ingredients which are unlikely to be useful to the people receiving them. What use is a can of capers on its own? Even if you get it right, you’ll still be missing a lot of basic supplies that are needed – food banks also hand out nappies, sanitary towels and tampons, toilet roll, and other necessary but unglamorous products.

(This last is something that it is good to remember about giving wedding and baby presents. When my sister got married, she ended up with so many towels that some of them are still unused five years later. When she had her daughter, they got so many newborn clothes that my niece had grown out of them before she could wear them all. This is so common that charity shops have huge ranges of unworn newborn clothes, which hardly ever get bought. Think about what other people are likely to get, and don’t get that. If you don’t know, just give a voucher or cash.)

Listen to the victims and believe them. Hard to believe that this still has to be said, but people doubt the testimony of victims all the time. This is in part because of media reporting on the issues, which makes false claims seem much more prevalent by focussing on them instead of on the wider picture, but also because of underlying social issues like sexism and racism. (That ties back to education as well.) If you as an ally or supporter dismiss claims as outlandish or as exaggeration, think how much easier it is for the opponents to dismiss them.

Don’t expect thanks or praise. You might receive some, but you shouldn’t be looking for it. Giving money to look good is still useful, but constantly making the conversation about yourself is selfish and unhelpful. I know that this sounds like I’m contradicting the first thing I said, but it’s possible to demonstrate that you are affected by an issue and care about it whilst making sure that the voices of the direct victims are heard. If in doubt, don’t mention anything more than “I care about this issue and I think you should too”.

Don’t talk yourself out of helping. You don’t have to do all of these things. You don’t even have to do any of them: if you want to help and can think of a better way, do that. But don’t think that your contribution would be meaningless so why bother at all. It’s both defeatist and wrong. One person genuinely can change the world, albeit one person in the right place at the right time with the right skillset, and you have no idea if you’re going to be that person.

Keep yourself safe: only do things that you are prepared to accept the consequences of. This is especially important in protests where you know the police (or army) are using violent or aggressive tactics. If you can’t afford to get arrested because of the type of industry you work in, you’re allowed to stay at home. You are allowed to place your safety ahead of your principles. Equally though, everyone is allowed to place their principles before their safety. The calculation is different for everyone at different times. Don’t presume that someone else didn’t think their actions through just because you came to a different conclusion.

Finally, don't be a dick. Don't threaten people with an opposing viewpoint physically or verbally, or make deliberately inflammatory statements, or make sweeping generalisations like "all TERFs are evil". These things can and will be used as ammunition by the other side. They will also alienate people with more moderate views, or people who are undecided about the issue or issues involved. You don't have to be excruciatingly nice to every sockpuppet or right-wing talk-show host you come across, but as a general rule you can't persuade them anyway: you can only persuade their audience. And that's a worthy goal.

Armchair activism has a bad name, but I'm pretty sure I have just comprehensively demonstrated that there are a large number of things that can be done sitting on one's arse in front of one's PC, or standing on public transport using your phone, or round the water cooler at work. You don't have to do all of them. You don't have to do any of them. If you need to stay anonymous, do it. But there are always, always things that you can do if you care about something.

Here are a list of links to various organisations, some specifically mentioned here and some not, which I have googled for you so you don't have to. Feel free to add more in the comments. (Just so we're clear, I reserve the right to moderate any comment made.)