Allan Mott asks this question: How would you feel and what would you do if tomorrow the world suddenly became the place you’ve always wanted to live in?
It was just one of those random arguments that are an unfortunately de rigueur part of online life. In the comments section of a post about wage disparity I had made the mistake of mentioning my experience as a short man and the impact physical size can have on a person’s lifetime earnings (I quoted figures brought up by Malcolm Gladwell in his bestseller Blink that suggest a man a foot taller than me—which would make him 6’ 2”—could expect to earn as much as $400,000 more than I did over the course of a 40 year career, doing the exact same job).
This upset several of the other commenters, because they felt that as a white male I had no right to insert myself into this kind of narrative. One of them even went so far as to accuse me of being a troll, which I took issue with since this discussion was occurring on a website I actually contributed to, not just commented on. When I asked my accuser why she was so upset by my comment, considering I made it in support of her own stated goal—ending all forms of unfair wage disparity—she answered back by saying that so long as I felt the way I did, she didn’t want me on her side.
It’s a sentiment I’ve seen expressed before, but it’s one that never fails to make me feel as confused as a caveman tasked to permanently delete Internet Explorer from a computer running Windows. Inevitably I just sit there, looking stunned and trying to avoid the temptation to just smash the evil spirits out the magic box with my bone club.
The reason for my confusion is this: If a person is truly dedicated to their cause, then shouldn’t they want EVERYONE to be on their side? Why would you reject the support of someone with the same stated goal, just because you don’t agree 100% over the fine print? If your position is so extreme that you refuse to recognize anyone who even slightly deviates from it, then how are you any better than those you’re working so hard to overthrow? Aren’t you just trying to replace the present tyranny with a new one that better suits your interests?
Before anyone accuses me of attacking feminism (which is not my intention at all), it’s important to note that this kind of uncompromising zealotry can be found amongst acolytes of every conceivable political, religious or cultural stripe. Examples similar to what I experienced can be found in every comment section devoted to virtually any subject—wherever you go, you’re bound to find an argument occurring between two people who essentially agree on nearly everything regarding the subject they’re discussing, yet fight bitterly and angrily over one or two points.
In terms of activism, this fault of human nature can become a major impediment towards creating the kind of action necessary to enact real change. Instead of a large group of dedicated individuals coming together to fight for the one common goal they all agree must happen for the world to become a better, fairer place, everyone breaks apart into smaller and less effective factions who frequently spend more time arguing with each other than battling against their common enemy.
In popular culture, Monty Python satirized this sad reality better than anyone else in their classic 1979 comedy, Life of Brian. Most people assume the film’s biggest target is organized religion—largely because its title character ends up being crucified after briefly being mistaken for the messiah—but the group saves their sharpest barbs for the film’s anti-Roman revolutionaries, who admit to hating the city’s other anti-Roman revolutionary groups only slightly less than the Romans.
The people involved in these disagreements will most certainly insist that the differences they are arguing about are not trivial at all and represent genuine philosophical conflicts that truly matter in the long run. In many cases this could be true, but the result is almost always the same—no one wins and everyone is completely unsatisfied. By compromising just a little, though, everyone has a better chance of getting the one major thing they want, leaving them time to bicker about the details afterwards.
But in today’s intellectual marketplace, compromise has become a dirty word. It’s not uncommon for present day politicians to proudly boast that they would sooner destroy the country than support the other party’s initiatives (even if their party might have originally came up with those initiatives in the first place). This all-or-nothing approach has become so omnipresent it suggests the possibility that many activists—of all different causes—aren’t actually in the game to foment genuine change, but for the thrill of the battle that comes with it.
This makes sense because the folks most resistant to compromise are most likely the fundamentalists of their cause. These are folks who are so passionately engaged in their specific view of the injustices of the world that their fight against it has become the all-encompassing reason for their existence. Without that fight their life would be meaningless.
And if you are someone whose life is almost wholly defined by the cause you are fighting for, then—at the very least subconsciously—you might actually be just a little terrified of the day your side wins. As wonderful as the thought of living in a world made in your image may seem, there also has to be the nagging fear of what you might do once your services are no longer needed.
In essence, every activist is fighting for their own obsolescence and while I believe the majority of them accept this with grace, my observations suggest there are some who—again subconsciously—work to self-sabotage their efforts to ensure the battle continues and their relevance never fades away.
There’s a simple question everyone can ask themselves to figure out whether or not they are fighting for the main goal of their cause or for the fight itself: How would I feel and what would I do if tomorrow the world suddenly became the place I’ve always wanted to live in?
Of course, to truly answer this question requires a level of self-awareness and honesty a lot of us don’t have. I’m sure 99% of the people I’m talking about in this post will insist that they’ll be overjoyed and live the rest of their lives in peace, when the truth is many of them would feel abandoned and bereft. It seems inevitably that not within too long they would find new injustices in the Utopia they fought for and start fighting all over again.
There is nothing wrong with believing fiercely in your cause, but like nearly everything it can become dangerous when you abandon tolerance and reason. By refusing to accept any compromise or the support of those who disagree on obscure details, you risk doing more harm than good. Sometimes it’s important to take a step back and ask yourself, “If I’m not willing to do everything I can to at least try and get everyone on my side, then what exactly am I really fighting for?”
Image courtesy of Flickr/kevin dooley