Rational Activism

This article may make some of you uncomfortable, but I hope that before you jump to conclusions about what it is that I’m saying, that you read for a few paragraphs after you feel uncomfortable. We seem, today, to live in a world that is largely black and white. Whatever sort of800px-PeacePark activism it is that we take part in, it seems that we must be all-in, or we are heretics – not really part of the movement. In doing so, we may often alienate many potential allies – just because we don’t take the time to understand each other.

If we’re going to be effective in our activism, it’s important that we have not only passion for what we’re doing, but a solid understanding of what we’re doing, and why, as well as a willingness to understand – if not accept views that are different from our own. We live in a multifaceted world, where it is rare that a single solution for any problem will not affect some other part of our world or society in a negative fashion. Nor is any truth right for everyone – if it were, there would be only one religion, only one form of government. We have all of our beautiful and marvelous diversity precisely because there are many ways of being and many different answers to the questions and struggles that we face.

Too many of us have developed and held on to an orthodoxy that binds us, that locks us into a particular way of seeing things. In feminism, or in working for racial justice, or in environmental issues, in political activism, or in just about any form of activism, it is often the case that if one does not toe the line, if a person disagrees with the accepted goals, one can be quickly ostracized.

Look at the term GMO; as soon as many of us hear it, it’s met with almost a visceral response. If asked “what do you think of GMOs, many of us would immediately respond that they are evil. We’ll hear arguments that “our bodies don’t know what to do with them”, that “Monsanto is destroying the planet”, and “The biotech industry is dangerous”. In some circles, we hear that “the medical industry doesn’t want a cure for cancer” because “they make more money selling us drugs that will not heal”, and “they spend money to cover up natural cures because they can’t make money off of them”. When it comes to energy, we hear that there are technologies that have been developed, but the government doesn’t want us to know about them. If we disagree with the idea that there are secret agendas, we may face scorn.

In many of the arguments that we hear, there may be a grain of truth, but certainly not always. It’s almost certain that when we hear the conspiracy theories, that things are overblown. Consider this: Physicians and scientists working in the pharmaceutical companies receive the same treatment that we do. I can’t imagine any researcher going to work for a company who is there to make money for somebody else – the pay is often too low, and the chances of huge rewards are miniscule. Most who go into biomedical research are there to seek out cures for illnesses – because that is what they really want to do. If they were “covering up cures for cancer” in order to prevent knowledge of natural cures from leaking out, why is it that they don’t use these “covered up cures” when they are faced with these diseases? Why do they either use the same treatments we receive – or opt for no treatment at all? What researcher, facing cancer, or having a spouse, child or parent who is facing such a horrible disease, would even consider hesitating, when they knew that cannabinoids were an easy, safe and effective treatment for all forms of cancer?

The truth, when it comes to natural health, or any other arena we might get involved in, is that it’s not a black and white issue. Certainly the laws and regulations here in the United States can be problematic. When it’s illegal to say that White Willow bark can be used as an analgesic, something is seriously wrong; it shouldn’t require a company to spend millions of dollars to do a double-blind study to make this claim when the truth of the matter is that White Willow bark was the initial source for aspirin. We do need to work to change such laws, but to make the outrageous claim that the only reason we don’t have actual cures for disease is so that other people can make money is far from the truth.

The other side of the natural health and alternative cures discussion is that there have been countless fraudulent claims by those selling these “natural cures” that have been fraudulent as well. Certainly this isn’t limited to the natural health arena – drug manufacturers have done quite the same. The truth is that ALL of those who have been pandering cures without evidence to support their claims have poisoned the well – sometimes literally. And the default position of the government now is that evidence must exist prior to making claims, rather than attempting to disprove claims after the fact.

Let’s now look again at the term GMO. Basically, the term means any living organism that has been modified via genetic engineering. This can certainly mean Monsanto’s corn, but it also applies to the bacteria that have been genetically modified to produce the insulin that diabetics are taking every day. I don’t believe that any of us would wish to condemn to death or misery those who are currently being treated with insulin that is obtained via GMO bacteria.

It’s important to fight – not the use of technology, but rather the irresponsible use of technology. What’s wrong with many GMO crops is not the simple fact that they are genetically modified crops – there may well be many genetic modifications that are quite worthwhile. The problem with many GMOs right now is that they aren’t designed to be inherently better for humans, but rather to be more tolerant of other dangerous chemicals. Products that are Roundup ™ ready are resistant to glyphosate, which is an herbicide. (Glyphosate is the generic name of Roundup). Use of this chemical permits farmers to use more glyphosate in their fields, and as of 2007, in the United States, some 180 – 200 million pounds of this toxin are used on an annual basis. In February of this year, that same chemical was linked to Celiac disease, gluten intolerance and irritable bowel disorder.

Other GMO crops have been designed to produce their own pesticides; they are actually poisonous to the insects that might eat them. Such organisms are classified as “Plant Incorporated Protectants” (PIP). The Environmental Protection Agency is the responsible agency for registering such products, and claims that extensive testing has been done on registered PIPs, but one needs to wonder how much testing could possibly be done on a product that has only existed for some 20 – 30 years.

The point of this is that when we direct our activism against GMOs, it’s important to be specific; what is it that we actually object to? The reality is that we don’t object to GMOs – but, rather, to products that may be dangerous, which haven’t been fully tested, and which may not be as safe for human consumption as they have been advertised.

Other GMO crops may well be welcome. Crops that are disease or drought resistant could certainly help feed a hungry or a warming world. Such as these are certainly more welcome than seeds that are incapable of producing another generation of fertile seeds – which are designed such that farmers need to purchase new seed each year.

Let’s look at energy. The Keystone Pipeline project is in the news right now, and certainly more tar sands oil on the market is a cause for concern. Is the pipeline necessarily a bad thing?

I’d say that it’s problematic to put something that could fail, and destroy a major aquifer right where it can do the most damage. And certainly our dependence on fossil fuels is a major problem. So, what are the alternatives? Let’s say that the Keystone XL pipeline isn’t built. Will that stop the taking of oil from those sands? No. Will it eliminate the possibility that a major aquifer isn’t contaminated? Well, maybe one of them, but that oil will get out – by trains, by trucks, or by other pipelines. I’m certainly not saying that we need to build the Keystone XL pipeline. But what I am saying is that if we don’t, we need to accept the responsibility for whatever means are used to get the oil from where it is to where it’s going. Will it mean more ships in dangerous waters? Will it mean another train derailing and destroying another small town – or a larger part of a larger city?

I think that most people who are reading this are likely against fracking – and with good reason. Many wells have been destroyed, a number of earthquakes have been found to be the result of fracking. But once again, the problem isn’t the technology, but the irresponsible use of a technology. Corporations are permitted to keep secret the chemicals they are using, and releasing into the environment. They are permitted to use this technology, often in environmentally sensitive areas. For the sake of profits, they are able to cut corners, even when the technology, albeit more expensive, might exist to prevent some of the problems we have already seen.

In the LGBT community, right now, there are many who are filled with vitriol over Jared Leto’s portrayal of the character Rayon in the film The Dallas Buyer’s club. The argument is that it’s an insult that a non-transgender woman shouldn’t have played that part. Certainly, from one point of view, Leto’s portrayal of Rayon was an insult to trans women. There have been transgender actors and actresses at least since 1981 when Caroline Cossey (aka Tula) played one of the Bond girls in For Your Eyes Only. Could a transgender woman have done a job equal to Jared Leto in The Dallas Buyer’s Club? Almsot certainly! The question though, from a marketing perspective, is whether such a choice would have made as much economic sense. Would the film have been as successful if people had known that they were watching an actual transgender woman on the screen playing that part. Unfortunately, we won’t know – at least not for this film. But it is important to keep fighting.

On the other hand though, some of the outrage is decidedly NOT good for the transgender community. The fighting, the outrage, the attacks against Leto really make the transgender community look bad. When the arguments are vitriolic, and filled with hatred and invective, transgender people are seen as exactly what they are dishing out – angry, hateful and not very nice to be around.

Sometimes the work we do as activists can be very reactionary, and very divisive, and we might well alienate potential allies. When we become so dogmatic in our efforts that we are unable to have a rational discussion with someone who sees things 75% our way, we have sacrificed the good on the altar of the perfect.

We live in a world with increasing energy demands. There are more and more people living on Earth each and every day, and they will all need to eat. Abortion will continue whether it remains legal or not. We will still need to heat our homes. All electric cars are still not as convenient as gasoline or diesel-powered vehicles, and won’t be for some years to come. So it’s up to us to advocate for solutions that will work. No matter how we see things, no matter what the perfect solution might be, the perfect solution is useless if nobody will adopt it.

There is no single answer to every problem that those of us who count ourselves activists are involved in. There is no one answer that is right for everyone – with pretty much every problem that we face, someone will be injured in its solution. But the point is that we who consider ourselves activists, on any level, need to recognize that there ARE multiple viewpoints for everything, and that simple solutions usually only exist in textbooks.

2 thoughts on “Rational Activism

  1. Rhyd Wildermuth

    Hi! I recently found your site.

    You’re certainly right that activists should be well informed.

    However, if I may make a suggestion–the problems in many of those cases you point out go much deeper. Tar sands and the Keystone pipeline [besides the vital struggle for native sovereignty all Pagans should support regardless] both have to do with dependence on fossil fuels. That dependence, though, stems from an insistence on having and maintaining a society of high industrialization where owning a car is considered part of the human experience and having new and nicer electronics and plastics is not only normalized, but the engine of economic growth. And all of that is compelled by Capitalism.

    Again, with Genetically Modified Organisms. Not only does Capitalism compel newer and better products (in order to earn profits), but Capitalism dictates the distribution of food so that many of the famines have less to do with poor harvests and pests but unequal distribution according to Capitalist profit imperative. “Better” crops won’t help–as was pointed out with the GMO ‘golden rice,’ the problem isn’t that the rice of the poor isn’t of high enough nutritive value, the problem is they’re only given rice!

    In the last case, the trans* community shouldn’t care about “looking bad.” They get it from everyone (including homosexuals), so more power (and magic and solidarity) to them.

  2. deirdrehbrt Post author

    Hi Rhyd
    You’re absolutely right that the problem is the use of oil, and we need to get at the fundamental problems that affect us all. And I have no problem with anyone who is working to find alternative methods of transportation.

    Likewise, food distribution is an issue – and today, we need fossil fuels just to move the food we have around

    This is kind of the point of the post – everything is inter-related. When we focus on the Keystone XL pipeline alone, or the tar sands alone, we actually miss the driving issue – and that is that we live in a society that cannot function without fossil fuels today.

    We also live in a society that is driven by greed. When industry finds something on which we will spend money, they do all they can to get us to spend more of our money on that particular product – whether it’s fuel, electricity – even cigarettes. It doesn’t matter if that product will ultimately kill us – the corporations and investors want us to use it more.

    While it’s certainly worthwhile to protest the Keystone XL pipeline, or tar sands oil as a whole, we need to look at the larger problems too. And that is my point. We can protest the route of the pipeline, but we still have to deal with that oil moving through the United States. We can protest the pipeline, but then we’ll be faced with that same oil moving through pipelines in Canada, or other pipelines, or seeing that oil move via train and boat and the possibility of accidents via those means. We can close down the tar sands, but we’re still using more oil from other places.

    Here in New Hampshire, we have the Northern Pass power line that is troubling people, but we have a nation that is very power hungry. We protest these lines because we don’t want to see them affecting the view of our mountains. Likewise, we are protesting wind energy, and virtually any form of energy that is efficient to produce – nuclear, hydro, wind, fossil fuels.

    What we really need is a fundamental shift in our society, where our compulsion to consume is reduced. We need to press forward with harnessing solar power on a local level. We need to focus more – not on new sources of fossil fuels, but on designing cities so that it is far more convenient to walk, bicycle, or to use public transportation. If we put as much effort on a daily basis on promoting walkable cities, as we do on protesting fossil fuels, we might likely make far more headway.

    Again, this doesn’t mean that it’s wrong to protest programs that might lead to disaster, but we need to be cognizant of the results of a successful protest, and we need to work with equal enthusiasm toward changing society so that we aren’t as reliant on harmful technologies.

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