Activists: How (and why) to avoid issue policing (especially on Twitter)

Before we dive into the perils of issue policing, I have to say that it’s heartening to see so many new faces and hear many new voices who may in the past have not explicitlyΒ considered themselves “activists,” or who have felt a greater call to stand up against a political administration whose ideologies show every indication of running counter to a constitutional democratic framework.Β 

If that describes you: THANK YOU! You are awesome. And if you’re an Old Hat at this sort of thing, this post is for you too — by way of initiating a civil dialogue with some of the fresh faces you see in your timeline or in your local community who may be exhibiting the following behavior:

Making claims that issue X, Y, or Z is “not important” or “not as important” as issue A, B, or C — which is what we should really be discussing right now.

Here’s why this behavior tends to do more harm than good:

  • There are a dizzying number of issues coming up, and many challenges being made to both constitutional democracy and American values — no one can be an expert on or confront all of them at once. We have to specialize, and allow others to specialize.
  • An individual’s expertise in one or more particular areas does not necessarily make those issues of the highest priority to everyone. Conversely, one’s disinterest or lack of knowledge in a particular area does not make that issue unimportant, or unworthy of discussion.
  • “Flooding the channel” with attacks on many fronts simultaneously is part of the political strategy of the new administration. It is intended to overwhelm the opposition, both in terms of volume and speed as well as by the age-old method of “divide and conquer” — the goal is to pit activists who otherwise share broad goals against each other, and bog them down with infighting instead of addressing the Common Enemy. It will require a lot of discipline among The Resistance to avoid being trapped by this effect.
  • The “airspace” is infinite, especially on social media — there is no zero-sum consideration to worry about, and no need to “control the message” or restrict all conversation to a smaller subset of issues.
  • Your energy, on the other hand, is not infinite. Nor is your time. Think very carefully before spending any of your precious energy and time curtailing the efforts or expressions of your fellow activists, versus spending that time and energy advancing the issues you find to be important.
  • Ultimately, a vast number of issues that are seemingly unrelated on the surface actually do have common roots, and/or arise from core agendas and ideologies. We would be wise to be in the business of starting from an assumption of intersectionality of issues, versus acting out of a worldview that issues are both discrete and hierarchically ranked in some objective way.
  • Remember, your feed is a self-curated view of discussion in the “airspace” — it is not necessarily representative of the overall volume of discussion or global topical mix. If you find yourself feeling that people are “discussing the wrong things,” try doing a search and following some new people. Consider also a change of approach: instead of assuming that issue X can’t be very important, try asking someone who sounds passionate about X why they feel so passionate about it (politely!). You might discover a common root with other issues you do care about, or simply get a new perspective on why issue X might indeed be very important to someone else. 

…and how to politely say so:

  • Stay Calm: Maintain the attitude of helping a friend, not scolding someone for a transgression.
  • Politely point out any of the issues delineated above, or share your own insight into why activist discourse needn’t be a zero-sum game.
  • Indicate that whatever issue they claim as “more important” can be important and worthy of discussion without a requirement to silence or diminish other issues.
  • If time and space allow, acknowledge the issue they wish to raise and ask them to share more information. This can be done authentically to draw out an honest dialogue, as well as to both make them feel heard and “draw them away” from further attacks on other issues.

On Twitter, it becomes especially obvious there is little need to “control the message” into a narrowly defined set of issues — at an “effort level” of only 140 characters, it is common practice to address a large set of issues even within the span of just a few minutes. If more of us can train ourselves (and encourage others) to adopt a “both/and” mentality in mind versus an “either/or” mindset while engaging in Twitter activism, we can contribute much to the level of civil discourse — such as it is — on an otherwise chaotic and confrontational medium.

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