March 27, 2017

Motivating Activism Without Relying on Outrage: Raising Awareness

safe and clean drinking water
Child enjoying clean and safe drinking water from a newly built well (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I wrote a post here a little over a year ago about outrage fatigue and activism. The thesis of the post was that the strategy of deliberately provoking outrage in others in order to motivate them to engage in activism, while extremely effective when used occasionally, can be overused to the point where it can undermine activism. We are bombarded with near constant attempts to outrage us about something, and more of us are beginning to tune out as a result.

This is unfortunate because there are many problems that benefit from activism (e.g., obstacles to science education, violations of church-state separation). If efforts to provoke outrage become less effective - or even counterproductive - when used excessively, it would seem that the obvious solution would involve us becoming less reliant on them.

I concluded that post with the following:
We find ourselves in an interesting predicament here. An effective tactic for motivating activism (i.e., stimulating feelings of outrage) can make people less likely to participate in meaningful activism when it is overused. If only they would stop using it so it would be more effective when we want to use it! But since that is not going to happen, it seems to me that we are going to need to find some effective ways to motivate activism that are less reliant on outrage.
This leads to the question I'd like to consider for this post: if our goal is to motivate activism, what alternatives do we have to efforts aimed at provoking outrage?

The one I'd like to consider here that of raising awareness. Nobody is going to engage in activism aimed at solving a problem of which they are unaware. Thus, the first step of nearly all efforts to motivate activism involve raising awareness of the nature and existence of a problem. While raising awareness can certainly lead to outrage, efforts to raise awareness do not have to aim for stimulating outrage directly. Sometimes, feelings of outrage emerge as a natural consequence of learning about a problem about which one comes to be concerned. And other times, learning about a problem leads to activism motivated by factors other than outrage.

Consider the water in Flint, Michigan, for a moment. Before we heard of this, we were not motivated to do anything about it. We did not know there was a problem. Once we learned of the problem, many of us began to pay attention. We wondered why the local, state, and federal governments did not seem to be doing anything. We saw the impact of lead on the area's children, and we could not believe that this was being allowed to happen in a major U.S. city. We began to express our dissatisfaction by contacting elected officials and amplifying the story on social media. We started to make it clear that we find the situation unacceptable. And then many of us learned of similar problems much closer to home.

It is undeniable that many people became outraged when they heard about what was happening in Flint. After all, the situation is outrageous. And yet, this seems to be a case where deliberate attempts to provoke outrage were not necessary. Simply learning about the problem seemed to be sufficient to outrage many. But the other point to make about Flint is that this seems to be a case where not all of the activism has been about outrage. Some adopted more of a solution-focused approach from the beginning. They recognized that lead poisoning is a serious public health problem and went about the process of seeking solutions. They did not need to be outraged in order to want to solve the problem.

I have long suspected that the state of Mississippi has water quality problems. Since I moved here, the number of water line breaks, tests identifying all manner of contaminants in my drinking water, and boil water notices has been unlike anything I have experienced anywhere else I have lived. Clearly, access to safe drinking water is not something we can take for granted, even in some parts of the U.S. As a result, I was not terribly surprised to learn that our largest city appears to have problems with lead in the water too.

While I would not fault anyone for being outraged about this, I do not feel like I need to be outraged in order to care about this problem or to want to solve it. I recognize the importance of access to safe drinking water. This is sufficiently important in its own right that I can be both rational and motivated to take action at the same time. I do not need someone to try to outrage me in order for me to care about this problem, and I suspect this is true for most of us.

Raising awareness is important when we are attempting to provoke outrage in others, but its utility extends beyond that goal. It is an important first step whenever we are trying to motivate activism, and it is one that does not necessarily have to result in outrage to be effective. Thus, it seems to me that raising awareness offers us one valuable approach for motivating activism without intentionally aiming to outrage our audience.
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