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Idealism, Pragmatism, and Productive Anger: Activism in Troubled Times

Idealism, Pragmatism, and Productive Anger: Activism in Troubled Times

by Neta Meltzer
Communications & Development Coordinator, CCASA

I recently read a book about the animal rights movement that advocated a pragmatic approach to create social change. While the author validated the thoughts and feelings of those who are more drawn to an idealist approach, he stood firmly in his insistence that while idealism has its place, it won’t get you far in the work of activism.

In our separate (but not unrelated) movement to end sexual violence and address intersecting forms of oppression, our task is the same as in many other movements – we want to change our culture. We are working to create an environment in which the way we think about each other, about respect, boundaries, humanity, and justice encourages safer communities in which everyone thrives. And while all of us who do this work share a similar goal, we approach this goal from a number of different directions. I’m here to argue that all approaches are valid and, further, that they are all necessary.

Somewhere throughout your education or professional career, you may have encountered concepts of various learning or work styles, different personality types, categorizations that serve to teach us that everyone is different – that different people respond to different things in different ways. If this is true – and the sheer number of unique individuals that exist on this planet suggest it probably is! – how can we argue that there is only one approach that works in creating social change?

Are you an idealist? Do you insist that we need to create a world free from sexual violence, and do you believe that everyone should start right now? Do you have grand visions of a better world, a beautiful picture you want to paint for those who are yet to join our cause? Your voice is needed to inspire those who sense that a problem exists, but haven’t yet managed to put those troubling realizations into tangible action steps. You make people feel that they are not alone. You make them want to get up and do something.

Are you more pragmatic? Do you believe that slowly chipping away at small manifestations of the patriarchy will eventually cause the whole structure to come crumbling to the ground? Are you planting the seeds, meeting folks where they are and slowly inviting them in? Your approach speaks to those who might be overwhelmed, those who feel that they alone can’t truly make a difference. When everyone helps chip away at the problems in our society just a little bit, the impact is greater than the sum of its parts.

And what about those of us who just feel angry? What about those of us who are disillusioned by the onslaught of alarming news stories, by what feels like the reversal of key areas of progress in our movement in recent weeks? What do we do with those feelings?

I’m here to argue that anger is an important driver for change. I’m not here to encourage you to ignore your anger, or to tell you that you don’t have a right to feel angry. The very fact that a society needs a movement to end sexual violence is angering in and of itself. I only suggest that you harness that anger, that you use is as motivation to engage in whichever form of activism speaks to you. We don’t all have to do it the same way. Perhaps, in the end, the most effective approach is a combination of both idealism and pragmatism. We’ll reach different audiences with different approaches, and we’ll start to see results. We’ve already seen unprecedented community response to recent developments. Let’s keep going.

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