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Activism and Social Justice: How to make sure that fist you’re shaking actually moves something

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Ouh, how I love receiving beautifully worded comments that inspire me to rethink things.

Here is an amazing comment left by an anonymous Sahar’s Blog reader on this post:

Hello there,

I would like to offer a rebuttal of the concept that rallies are inherently ineffective.

You wrote (and repeated for emphasis) that “raising awareness… is about all that is going to happen” because the root cause of the problem is not addressed. At the most basic level, yes, that’s true – but only for its lack of immediately measurable results. Who knows what the long term effects of a rally are? As an example: there will be a candlelight vigil by Iranian-Canadians tonight at the University of Toronto. Will that have even the slightest impact on the Iranian election? Of course not. Yet perhaps one of those young people will be (further) inspired to make a lasting change and pursue an education in law, and later move to Iran to make changes in the system – the type of root level changes that would prevent such fraudulent elections in the future. Yes, the election of 2009 was lost and couldn’t be overturned, but perhaps that candlelight vigil did make a difference.

A less hypothetical example: Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch every year held “Close Guantanamo Bay” rallies outside U.S. consulates around the world. Did the couple dozen people who showed up for a rally in Perth, Australia in 2005 get the Bush Administration to shut down Guantanamo Bay? No. Did the hundreds of rallies around the world every year, the many advocacy campaigns in the news media, and the thousands of letters written by AI and HRW members combined PLAY A ROLE in shaping the next administration’s intent to close it? I absolutely believe that it did.

Granted, I cannot definitively quantify that as much as you cannot quantify the ineffectiveness of a rally. So, I offer the example of noted United Nations humanitarian, Sergio Vieria de Mello. In his biography, written by Pulitzer Prize-winning Samantha Power, it is written that in his youth, Sergio participated in many rallies while studying in France, and they helped shape the man that he would become in the future. Many people complain of the U.N’s ineffectiveness and its need of a system overhaul (most of that criticism is incidentally true), but Sergio was able to show that the U.N. could still be effective and he changed the lives of many people. These are the incalculable results of passions that could not be extinguished and cannot be measured.

So, dear internet stranger and fellow social justice activist, perhaps one day we will come across each other on a street, with me holding a placard and you walking to your next destination. Maybe you won’t join me on the frontline, but we will smile at each other knowing that we are both doing what we can, in our chosen methods, to make the world a better place. And it will be through our combined efforts that the day will be won.

First of all, I really hope that this anonymous ‘Internet Stranger’ comes often to Sahar’s Blog and will be inspired again and again to write comments such as these on various posts. For no one holds the complete truth; we all hold a piece of it. And when we sit down and discuss it in such a polite and eloquent way, we can grasp a little more truth.

Second of all, here are some thoughts this comment engendered:

You wrote (and repeated for emphasis) that “raising awareness… is about all that is going to happen” because the root cause of the problem is not addressed. At the most basic level, yes, that’s true – but only for its lack of immediately measurable results. Who knows what the long term effects of a rally are? As an example: there will be a candlelight vigil by Iranian-Canadians tonight at the University of Toronto. Will that have even the slightest impact on the Iranian election? Of course not. Yet perhaps one of those young people will be (further) inspired to make a lasting change and pursue an education in law, and later move to Iran to make changes in the system – the type of root level changes that would prevent such fraudulent elections in the future. Yes, the election of 2009 was lost and couldn’t be overturned, but perhaps that candlelight vigil did make a difference.

The Anonymous Author is right; while the immediate measurable response to a rally is only to raise awareness, we can’t measure its long term response. Who knows the number of youth who will be inspired because of those they witnessed marching & demonstrating, denouncing the violation of human rights happening not only in Iran, but also in other countries?

I do feel the need to point out the big difference between a candlelight vigil and a large-scale demonstration. By it’s very nature, a candlelight vigil doesn’t create an environment in which violence is but a spark away; quite the contrary, they are a peaceful way of raising awareness. It could be argued that, because of the reflective mood created by events such as a candlelight vigil, it is much more likely that those attending will be inspired to take action in ways creating concrete change – including addressing the root cause mentioned in my previous post.

A demonstration does raise awareness, but tempers and emotions fly high and it only takes a misplaced or misunderstood word for it to turn violent. Another aspect of demonstrations is that they are threatening; a government can argue that it absolutely had to use force to disperse a demonstration going awry. However, an event such as a candlelight vigil doesn’t warrant any form of violent rebuttal. How physically dangerous is a large group of people holding candles and praying?

So perhaps the answer lies somewhere between our previous opinions; on the one hand, there is a huge need in raising awareness, as most people don’t know what is going on in the world, and those who have an idea often don’t know what they can do about it. But on the other hand, we must be careful to use the right ways of raising awareness, to make sure that the efforts put in organizing these events lead to concrete action.

Speaking of which, I need to go check up on some social-justice related things, so I leave you with these thoughts and will be back with the rest soon!

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3 thoughts on “Activism and Social Justice: How to make sure that fist you’re shaking actually moves something

  1. Oh wow, look at that, it’s my post.

    Thank you for the kind words. I’m happy and always willing to discuss politics and social justice issues, but especially to hear others’ opinion because you’re right, we all hold pieces of a truth and if you want to be heard… listen.

    I’ll be sure to drop by from time-to-time to read your analysis and add to the already excellent discourse on your blog.

    Wait, your name is Sahar? (I just read the title of the blog for the first time). Did you, by any chance, spearhead a book drive in ’08/’09 in Toronto?

    1. Yes it’s your post 🙂 You didn’t expect me not to share something that good, did you! It’s the perfect example of what I am trying to do – create a platform where I share my opinions and then read other people’s opinions and can adjust my own as needed.

      I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts on any other issue covered by Sahar’s Blog – or any other issue you might be interested in having my opinion on. Feel free to email me: saharsblog@gmail.com.

      While I did spearhead a book drive, it wasn’t in 08/09 and not in Toronto! Right name, wrong Sahar 😉 How did that go?

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