The word “activist” has a peculiar stain on its reputation. It comes packed with baggage. Even as a person that goes to protests and cares passionately about causes, I’m sheepishness in self-applying that term. What is the stereotypical activist like? Angry, biased, emotional, ideologically rigid, idealistic, divisive and impatient.
At bottom the term means that you are angry at the world’s injustices and want to change them. The Youtuber Eisel Mazard (channel: A-bas-le-ciel) has explained that in China the term has a positive connotation (traditional: 積極份子 simplified: 积极份子). To be an activist is to be respected. Why doesn’t the term have that same meaning in English?
The term initially described Swedes who wanted their country to break their neutrality during World War 1 and join the Central Powers. The word became truly common in the 1960s because of the civil rights and feminist movements. There was a debate then as to whether the people marching in the streets are selfless crusaders for moral truth or a naive rabble rousers.
Americans don’t generally repudiate the legacy of African American civil rights or second wave feminism today, but there’s still an air of suspicion and illegitimacy to the word “activist.”
Journalist Tara Murtha has noted that labeling a source an “activist” can be a subtle way to undermine them. It suggests that this person has no other credentials. An “activist” has none of the gravitas of “academic,” “lawyer” or “journalist.” Further, it implies that the person is biased by an agenda. Credentialed people, particularly women, are often targets of this treatment.
Activism has long been viewed with deep fear and mistrust by the political establishment of the United States.
COINTELPRO was an FBI program that ran in the middle of the 20th century with the goal of tarnishing the reputations of activists. Martin Luther King Jr was the most famous target, but others include Yoko Ono, Malcolm X and Abbie Hoffman. Groups like Students for a Democratic Society, the Black Panthers and The Communist Party were infiltrated and surveilled also.
Cold Warriors feared that activists were doing the bidding of the Soviet Union by dividing America. To some extent this is true. The Soviet Union used peace organizations all over the world as a smokescreen for promoting their ideology (leading to a clandestine CIA project to return in kind). The plight of African Americans has been a source of material for Soviet Propaganda from the 1920s through to the present day. Activists were deemed useful for convincing the world that America is just as morally tainted as the Soviet Union. It’s not a surprise that activists were deemed traitors by many Americans gripped with Cold War paranoia.
The Lexicographer Kory Stamper identifies the 1980s as a time when the conservative movement was particularly hostile to the word “activist,” and forms of collective action generally. The Moral Majority was feuding with advocates for gay rights, HIV awareness and abortion rights. William F. Buckley Jr. ridicules a group of peace activists who were captured in Nicaragua. Syndicated columnist Raymond Coffey laid the template of the shrill caricature of an activist we know today.
The modern updates to this picture is that activists today are constantly online, easily offended and hostile to free speech. Right wing commentators like Tucker Carlsen, Ben Shapiro and Steven Crowder have endless content about the “social justice warriors” who “virtue signal” on Twitter and college campuses.
In most senses, the left has won the the culture war, but the right still has an uncanny ability to control language and shape the terms of debate. “Activist” is one word among many that the right has effectively tarnished over the course of the culture war. Opinion pollsters can get radically different results by phrasing questions with different language. Most Americans support “financial assistance to the poor,” but reject “welfare,” mostly due to the Republican war on that phrase.
Republican strategist Frank Luntz has been explicit about trying to craft language to sway politics. Classics of Republican wordsmithinginclude “enhanced interrogation” for “torture,” the “death tax” versus the “estate tax,” and “defoliation” over “chemical warfare” during Vietnam.
It was Luntz who pushed for “climate change” over “global warming,” because “while global warming has catastrophic communications attached to it, climate change sounds a more controllable and less emotional challenge.”The Guardian has embraced“climate crisis, “climate emergency,” or “global heating, and discouraged the use of “climate change.”
Activists have been put in a box and had their name tarnished. Conservatives know that this image of activists will not have resonance with the broad mass of the public. It’s only a small proportion of very online people that are willing to embrace the label. That’s not enough to create a social movement that could produce genuine reform.
In part one, I’ve laid out what’s been done to the reputation of the activist community. In part two I’ll concentrate on how activists themselves have shaped the meaning and image associated with that term, and offer advice.
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