Effective Secular Activism Needs Both Passion and Pragmatism

Women's march against Donald Trump

Suppose for a moment that you agree that the U.S. "still has far too many racists" and "a serious race relations problem" (jobsanger). Even among those who agree with these claims, one might expect to find considerable disagreement over what to do about it. Some might prefer education; others might prefer public shaming. There are sure to be many approaches to solving our race relations problem and reducing the number of racists, and each will have their advocates.

When I think of activism of almost any type focusing on almost any set of issues, I think this is where things break down. We can usually agree about the problem we'd like to solve. We share at least some sense of the state-of-affairs we'd like to bring about even if this is somewhat vague. Our disagreement almost always involves the means we decide to pursue in order to meet our goal(s).

When it comes to improving race relations and reducing the impact of racism, I prefer an empathic approach to education over punitive measures (e.g., trying to get racists fired and publicly shaming them on social media). I prefer these methods, in part, because they are more consistent with my values and what I know about the nature of racism (e.g., it is learned, racist attitudes can and often do change). But for the most part, I prefer education because I suspect that it is more likely to be effective and less likely to engender a backlash.

To motivate activists and sustain activism, I think that a certain level of passion is necessary. Activists need to be at least somewhat angry in the face of the perceived injustice. This motivates their interest and keeps them engaged in what are often thankless tasks. At the same time, passion is not enough. Pragmatic considerations are necessary too. Some activist strategies can make whatever problem the activists are trying to solve worse. And so, we need a pragmatic and flexible sort of activism that pays careful attention to what works and quickly abandons counterproductive tactics in favor of those that lead to change. Unfortunately, polarization, tribalism, and stubborn adherence to ideology do us no favors here.

When it comes to secular activism, I see more evidence of passion than pragmatism. Again, passion is good in this context and not something we can get by without. But I would like to see more reason, nuance, flexibility, freethought, and pragmatism. I'd like to see far more of the "I'm not sure if this will work or not, but let's give it a try and find out" approach and far less demonizing anyone who questions one's preferred tactics. I suspect such a shift would reduce infighting and increase our chances of success.