I've been active now in a concerted way for many years, and I've worked on a number of causes and with many different people. Most of these relationships have been very positive. Activists are motivated, dedicated, and often quite intelligent. And even though in my experience virtually all activists hold strong opinions, about virtually everything, we are usually willing to compromise and reach a consensus so we can continue to work together.
I have had a number of disappointing experiences, though, about which I have thought long and hard. In the institutional world (to which we are usually opposed) there is a certain camaraderie, but everyone also understands that there is strong competition around the common personal goal, which is to get ahead. You therefore don't open up that much, and keep a close eye for people trying to take advantage of you, to further their own careers.
It's different in the activist community. We're not trying (at least in most cases) to get ahead. Our goals are different, less personal, less selfish. We want to help nature, other people and society. Because of this, many of our relationships are based on, or develop into, real friendship. Therefore, when problems do occur, when someone lets you down – including in the worst cases by actively turning against you – it can be extremely upsetting.
I believe that activists in general, but particularly in relationships with other activists, should strive to have three distinct qualities:
- We should be straight,
- and competent,
- and reliable.
When I refer to straight, I am not saying that you should not feel free to live your life as you desire, to indulge in whatever pleasures you appreciate (i.e., I'm not telling you that you have to be "straight-edge"). Rather, I'm simply saying that we need to be ethical. If we are going to ask others to change, we have to lead by example.
Of course, this is also very challenging. Ethics are general principles, but they have to be applied in specific situations. In any given situation there are courses of action that are the best, the most ethical, but sometimes it is very difficult to figure out what they are. This is the challenge that everyone faces, but as activists it is particularly acute because we are asking others, including in some cases the general public, to do what we say.
Activists generally are straight, but a common problem is territoriality. Some people act like: that's my cause, or my area of involvement, so stay out of it! This particularly seems to be the case with funded activists, who apparently feel that to protect their funding they must prevent others from conducting similar initiatives. My view is: the more pressure the better. I would like to see ten groups work on issues where there is now only one, and if they duplicate each other's efforts or approaches in some way, I don't understand why this is a problem.
Another issue is plagiarism. It's common for activists to share resources and other material, but if you use the work of other people you should always give them credit.
The second point is to strive to be competent. I said we are intelligent. This means we should have no difficulty being competent. Competency means doing a good job, being efficient and well organized and working until something is well done. Many activists are this way, but only sometimes. At other times, they "just don't feel like it, right now," and let things lapse. This is unprofessional.
Also, it's not only an issue of ethics. The institutional world is professional (of course, people there are paid!). Our prospects are grim if we do not match, and ideally exceed, their level of professionalism.
The final point, which is related to this, is simply to be reliable. If you say that you will do something, you should do it.
In my experience, this is the most common activist failing. People promise something, but then don't deliver, which leaves you hanging since you have based your own actions on the assumption that they will come through. If you say that you will do something (even if it's just making a call or having a meeting), barring only the most extreme and unexpected circumstances, you should get it done.
by Roland O. Watson