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Weekend reflection: why we should all celebrate the maverick activist

By Simon Davies

I was delighted to read this weekend about the latest victory in the campaign to save America’s local post offices from closure. Local citizens have fought a long battle to rescue three offices from the axe and have just achieved a heartening success. Across the world and in every sphere of human endeavour such efforts are paying off. True, the behemoth of institutional barbarism moves inexorably on, but people are responding in creative and ingenious ways to make their voices heard.

the behemoth of institutional barbarism moves inexorably on, but people are responding in creative and ingenious ways to make their voices heard.

In the information realm too there are constant – though often invisible – success stories. Only last week campaigners managed to stall regressive amendments to India’s Right to Information Act while in the UK, campaigners are waging a devastating blitz against authorities over the intrusive Communications Data Bill.

Sometimes these battles are won by professional campaign groups, but increasingly it seems they are spearheaded by citizens who take up arms to defend their beliefs. They build networks, they use innovative communication strategies and – most important of all – they learn from the lessons of past campaigns.

There are very few people who can go through life without challenging authority in one way or another. Even those who appear submissive by nature have probably taken a stand. At a certain moment, even the most anally retentive conformist will resist forces that threaten a quiet life.

There are very few people who can go through life without challenging authority in one way or another. Even those who appear submissive by nature have probably taken a stand.

Standing up to authority is one of the defining processes of a healthy mind. Taking steps to challenge regressive or unfair power is a natural response for any reasonable self-respecting member of society. Indeed, through the course of human history every step forward required a challenge to rules and conventions. The great movements that shaped society were made possible because a mass of people supported a radical idea and thus abandoned the way things used to be done.

To defy unfair power doesn’t make you “a” radical or “an” activist; it just means you took action in support of something you believe. The stereotype is a convenient way for entrenched power to devalue those who seek to reform bad practices. Doing something radical does not define you, it enhances you.

Of course there’s a stereotype to conveniently fit any situation. The advocate apparently wears a suit and advances his quite reasonable cause through reasoned argument. The campaigner, of course, sold his suit on eBay and in shirt sleeves presses his dubious cause through protest. Meanwhile the activist wears his father’s suit to court and pushes his unreasonable cause through aggressive action. And so on.

To defy unfair power doesn’t make you “a” radical or “an” activist; it just means you took action in support of something you believe.

It’s impossible to accurately profile the activist. I once met a gentle great grandmother who caused hell for her local council for months by standing on a busy street corner every day with a placard that read “City hall thieves… Give my house back”. I’ve met others – decent and honourable men and women – who occupied a rubbish dump outside Manila and turned it into their home, defying efforts by military and police to remove them.

I knew a family who stood by the father as he defied his employer over discrimination, and watched helpless as the bank took away their home. I’m pleased to tell you in all those examples the underdog eventually won, though victory is often at the end of a long and painful road. How you define such people depends on how you resonate with them.

Contrary to the popular imagination, people become activists not by sitting in on a local meeting of radicals, but through their own personal experience. It might be a bad experience with management of a shopping centre, or a sudden awakening that it’s wrong for the police to collect DNA from everyone in an entire area. Some people become activists because their child came home from a camping trip with industrial waste on her clothes and others because they lost their job in a multinational takeover.

Often they are people who could be described as ordinary folk with extraordinary beliefs, characterized by institutions as dangerous radicals, but who are more often what one judge in a recent UK miscarriage over charges laid over environmental activism described as  “decent men and women with a genuine concern for others” who “acted with the highest possible motives”.

Contrary to the popular imagination, people become activists not by sitting in on a local meeting of radicals, but through their own personal experience.

This activity happens far more often than you might imagine. A couple of years ago for example, I got to know – sadly too late – a high school student who – alone – defied her school’s policy of fingerprinting all students. The institution – one of top girls’ schools in England – had decided fingerprinting was a useful initiative, even though the authorities were at loss to explain why it was needed.

The girl thought differently. To the astonishment of her friends and family, she refused to be fingerprinted. To her, fingerprinting was an affront – the last resort of a dying administration that had lost its way.

The school retaliated by imposing punishments on her entire class for “failing to provide peer support” and then removed her privileges. Her parents reacted to her with anger, saying their daughter was spitting in their face. She held out against all these pressures but finally called me a couple of weeks later and wept as she told me that the school had threatened expulsion just before her exams. In a final act of defiance she filed her fingertips down and presented the bloodied mass to the machine.

We were influenced in childhood by an empire of films, plays, books, philosophies, ideologies and folklore all celebrating the lives and legend of law-breaking individuals who took hold of powerful ideas and against great odds influenced and improved the world.

Older people in particular should take heart that there are many more of your generation standing up against authority than you could ever imagine. Everyone is handicapped by stereotypes of non-conformity, but the truth is that men and women of all ages and backgrounds are continually challenging bad rules and standing up for principle. Don’t fall into the trap, as I once did, of believing the stereotypes.

As a younger man I used to regard my aunt as the most painfully conventional coward on the planet. She seemed to spend most of her time casting aspersions on people who acted out of the ordinary or who caused controversy. She would focus her indignation on my attempts to shift popular opinion and would loudly deliver disapproving lectures on the folly of radical thought. Dinners with my aunt were painful events that reminded me why I think the way I do.

I later discovered a hidden history. It turns out that my aunt was one of the first women in the advertising industry. Prior to the 1950s women made the tea and took minutes. As a professional designer she challenged the male dominated sector and fought through two decades of bitter and hurtful discrimination, standing up against rules that she felt were unfair and unfounded. In the process she pioneered a path for other women. She was the same person then as she is now, it’s just no-one told her she was a radical. She just did it.

This says more about my aunt’s perception of radicalism than her hypocrisy. It also suggests that radical action is probably far more common than most people imagine. The radical spirit in us and around us can be invisible or it can be made a respectable and justified cause. Other people’s rebellions are simply selfish and pointless. It’s not surprising therefore that people who do something radical are often portrayed so badly. The stereotype of the radical as a corrosive, left-leaning obsessive is far from the truth. In reality people who take radical action are found right across the human spectrum, and often in the most surprising disguises.

We were influenced in childhood by an empire of films, plays, books, philosophies, ideologies and folklore all celebrating the lives and legend of law-breaking individuals who took hold of powerful ideas and against great odds influenced and improved the world. They tell us that much of what we cherish – including our rights and freedoms – was made possible because of the maverick activist. But in the mind of many, those were just fairy tales. For others, they were an inspiration.

Let’s make sure we continue to support those who believe that the spirit of the individual should be given a chance.