Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Obstacles to inspiring people to "be the change"

Gandhi's expression "Be the change you want to see in the world" gets quoted quite a bit.  But to what end?

It's one thing to consider embracing activism and avoiding burn-out for those who are already jazzed about getting involved in advocacy, but most people don’t constantly write letters or go to rallies. They don’t focus their frustration. There dozens of ribbons and hundred of groups and thousands of little causes mingling with the bigger ones. Like something on Facebook, retweet something on Twitter and you have been “active”. 

I wrote one email to an elected official this year. I clicked to “sign” a few online petitions. That’s it. And I am fairly well-informed. I know the stakes. So why don't more people turn their concerns into action?

I am sure whole books could be written about that, but here are some leads on causes of indifference and inaction which are useful in pursuing a set of solutions.


Think about protests and how they get covered. The anti-war movement of the 1960s was portrayed as naive acid-tripping hippies. The anti-war movement of the 2000s was painted as ungrateful misguided Bush-haters. G-8 protests become all about the destructive anarchists. The most reported parts of anti-abortion protests are the people with giant posters of mutilated fetuses. How many times has the coverage of GLBTT parades focused on the most outrageous and provocative displays? What do we see of Tea Party coverage except the racist, homophobic hypocrites and their offensive signs? A subtle but consistent message communicated by such coverage is clear: Only the most irrational, naive, hateful, eccentric, or self-absorbed attention-seekers get involved with such public displays.


There is little mention or coverage of the success of petition drives or marches in major media outlets and what is accomplished is often exaggerated or overblown by partisan operatives, so the rationale for some to get involved with organizing becomes a kind of personal project or catharsis that doesn’t depend strictly on outcomes. For such folks just being involved makes a statement to themselves about who they choose to be and offers a network of people to reinforce such self-image. These are not bad things, but they can effect how those not closely involved with the movements perceive and interact with them. Those not looking for a role or image or lifestyle may be made to feel like they can’t make a sufficient commitment to join in. Also, not having indications that such methods get results can inhibit people from making an effort.


People may be worried about reactions from friends, family, employers, coworkers etc and the awkwardness or serious difficulties resulting from active participation in various movements. Maybe they don’t want to “bother” or “annoy” such people or even worry about how they might react just knowing they are involved with protests, etc. Others are not as concerned about such repercussions but may be shy or introvertive. They may not be comfortable working in groups, calling strangers on the phone, or knocking on doors. These concerns may be amplified by issues #1 and #2.

Lack of focus

It is easy to get overwhelmed by so many issues about so many things that all are presented as pressing and vital issues that need YOU. Therefore there may be guilt or frustration or both because YOU don’t know if YOU can keep up with all of them. Friends, relatives, emails, mass mailings, etc may flood you with requests for support — sign here, send money there. Getting involved at a more substantial level may then appear to run the risk of giving the same kind of guilt and frustration one is receiving (see issue #3).

So what?

Understanding what causes hesitation to making a commitment or turns people off to an offer is essential in promoting anything, whether it is a product, service or a cause.  Some people cannot be kept away from being active for causes which move them and others cannot be motivated by anything.  Hence the target audience includes those who do care but are sitting on the fence with respect to getting involved. Keeping these things in mind when organizing a campaign is essential to making those people comfortable enough to make a decision based on their aspirations and values rather than their worries or insecurities.  This former is a solid foundation for regular involvement, while the latter promotes reticence and apathy.


  1. I think "comfortable" is the key word for me, personally I have an amazing knack for being comfortable in most situations. My activism is limited mainly to the internet with a few letters to members of various governmental types.

    He was referring specifically to Christianity and the Gospel message, but I can't help but be reminded of Keith Green's Asleep In The Light. It really applies to any kind of activism.

    Asleep In The Light


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