What happens when a divisive social issue confronts a politically interested, principled and zealous person? He or she becomes motivated or is told to act. “Get out there. Sign a petition. Rally at their front door. Spread the word. Do something.”
This advice appeals to the fundamental human urge to make a name for oneself, be heard, and make a difference. However, this typical, simplistic advice should not be our knee-jerk reaction for healthy political engagement. In fact, this activistic response should be feared by those who desire a thriving polis.
The majority of activism in our modern society is attempted online. This attempt is easy, inexpensive, and gets the word out to a large group of people. On the other hand, online activism is superficial; it penetrates only the surface level of the consumer’s consciousness. This low-impact effect of online activism is an indication that the culture needs better quality and high-impact forms of political engagement, which primarily occurs through social relationship. Online activism provides a quick spiritual vessel into which the seeking soul can pour his or her time and treasure without the benefit of a mutually fulfilling relationship. The admirable goal of “changing hearts and minds” seems to only be successful and lasting when that turning of the heart or mind comes about through a meaningful interaction with another person.
Today’s online activism also lacks an essential aspect of human communication: eye contact. When we communicate, we look each other in the eye, and we find it strange when our interlocutor refuses or limits eye contact. Online engagement with political topics disallows this intimate social bond and excludes true communication. Our era can sadly be characterized, at least in part, by the sickeningly incessant repetition of the perception that we are “becoming more divided.” A statement of this perception seems to be a distressing admission of our inability to look each other in the eye. Face-to-face encounters are an immediately disarming exercise and one that seems to “do” more than the restless activism that our modern sensibilities demand.
The current activist framework seems to also discourage a thoughtful consideration of action. When we don’t know what, how, or why we are acting, we imitate the chicken with its head cut off with greater precision than the free and thinking human agents we are called to be. Today’s activist scheme would shudder at St. Thomas Aquinas’ stages of human action. Aquinas’ system demands simple volition, then intention, deliberation, decision, election, command, use, and finally, fruition for the action to be considered complete. These eight steps highlight the complexity of human freedom and action. They simultaneously indicate the potential richness and depth that a single act can have in comparison to other unfulfilling attempts when actions become shallow and unfocused.
In addition to a discouragement of thought, contemporary activism more forcefully discourages prayer. The Benedictine ideal of prayer and work is confused with a lack of social concern. On the contrary, St. Benedict and his monks pray and work because they embrace the balance that is required between properly ordering social action and the nourishment of divine life. A repudiation of this balance seems to lead to a confused and poorly ordered hyper-focus on only one aspect of life in the pursuit of a perception of progress. Progress is good when progress is done, as the etymology of the word suggests, with the purpose to “walk forward.” Progress implies intentional movement in a certain direction with a specific aim. Modern activistic progress seems to lack at least one, maybe two, and sometimes all three of these attributes.
The #MeToo movement, for example, may have begun with a righteous direction and aim. However, it was difficult for even the leaders of the movement to clarify what was being sought because there was confusion about whether the movement was founded to realign a focus on sexual harassment and assault; to normalize more radical branches of third-wave, intersectional feminism; or, to allow for more accessible vulnerability on social media platforms. Because the movement lacked a clearly universal appeal for an issue that could have garnered universal support, the political ambitions of the group became the primary focus rather than an opportunity to build a consensus.
Another failure on the part of these activist groups is their political language. Because these movements frequently employ quasi-eschatological terms to emphasize the importance of their cause, they lose their appeal to more moderate or skeptical demographics. This failure can be found on both the left and the right. Activist groups hopefully realize that it is not possible to “end abortion” or “end racism.” This sort of rhetoric is inspiring but is ultimately not rooted in reality and distracts true activists from the goal of their work. The higher and nobler vocation is when activists do the hard interpersonal work, such as the woman who works at the pregnancy health center or the anti-racist advocate that engages in racial reconciliation education and dialogue.
When one cannot find a place in the realm of activism, there is an inability to find a place in political society. Because we have so easily conflated political engagement with on-the-street, public activism, those who are taking part in the hard work of political life through in-person, eye-to-eye conversation, or deliberate thought and ceaseless prayer, are easily overlooked as inessential figures instead of becoming our primary role models for how to participate in political society. Engaging with a political identity results in a distancing from the neo-Marxist notion of oppressor versus oppressed as the primary driving force of society. True politics is not found in the divisive relationship of antagonism and agitation, but rather, in a unified cooperation of hearts and minds. Those anxious souls around us who are concerned that they have nothing to “do” in their political community would be right to set their minds at peace, because their community needs their souls more than it needs their bodies.