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July 19, 2010 | by  | in Opinion | [ssba]

Actress, Activist, Terrorist

When you tell people you want to be an activist when you grow up, you can usually expect one of two responses: a) you have been misunderstood, and your conversation partner replies “What, like on Shortland Street?” See, in this instance you have been misheard as saying ‘actress’ rather than ‘activist’, a common mistake. You might want to work on your pronunciation.

The second option, response b), is one of mild horror. ‘Activist’ is often considered synonymous with ‘terrorist’. Mix-ups aside, there are quite a few issues with the terrorist label anyway. There’s currently no internationally agreed-upon definition of terrorism under criminal law, and the term is often used by authorities to delegitimise opponents while approving of state actions. Whatever the problems with the general concept, activism and terrorism are definitely not interchangeable nouns.

Personally, almost every activist I’ve met has been super nice: they would help you plant your veggie patch, give you a bed when you’re sleepy, a bowl of stew when you’re broke. Terrifying if you’re scared of Scottish Fold kittens, perhaps.

Let’s zoom in and look at activism in its most stereotypical ‘macho’ form: direct action. Direct action is action undertaken by individuals or collectives outside of the usual political field with the aim of realising political, social or economic changes. It’s not necessarily illegal. This is how ‘activism’ is frequently portrayed in conventional media: the newsworthy, train-stopping, ship-jumping side.

There are many environmentalists out there who dislike direct action wholeheartedly. However, many of the groundbreaking events in our history books were scandalous, socially unacceptable and illegal, in their day. Instead of us seeing them in a negative light, time has cast them in a rosy glow. Rosa Parks, women’s liberation, Ghandi’s salt march, peaceful resistance at Parihaka… I think we can all agree that direct action has helped humans get to places we needed to go. When my indignant enviro-pals chorus “but you’re polarising people!”, they are forgetting the freedoms and human rights that radical activism has won. When we need big societal changes, such as for climate change, baby steps like changing light bulbs aren’t going to cut it alone. A problem like climate change is of epic Jurassic Park-like proportions, and calls for many forms of attack; action in Veloraciptor, Diplodoci and T-Rex forms.

Direct action isn’t to everyone’s taste, but that doesn’t guarantee status as a political wallflower. We don’t all have to be Pete Bethunes to make some sort of difference. A whole artillery (unfortunate metaphor) of action on social and environmental crises are needed: grandpas in the rear, writing letters to the editors; mums voraciously picketing on the frontline; students sweeping in from the side to ferociously lobby politicians; young professionals taking out fossil-fuelled power stations left right and centre. Change can come in many forms, regardless of an individual’s personal preferences.

Not only are healthy communities and societies dependent on the participation of us all, being actively involved in deciding how we affect our world is our right.


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