Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Activism: Self-service or self-serving

Last evening's tennis session was rained out. But I still had a good workout with the wife, playing squash.

Prior to the squash, I had a talk with my tennis friend, who was equally disappointed with the gloomy weather. It was more like me asking him questions on how to do activism and all.

I guess most activists begin as hotheads, and are far too eager to lynch any one who makes a transgression. My friend told me that angry activists always have a personal agenda, i.e. they want something for themselves, which is why they are angry.

It is an interesting perspective, and as I began to reflect on myself. I think the nature of my anger is different. I was just angry at the homophobia and misinformation being thrown out in the press by people claiming to be straight, by people claiming to be embracing family values and all that. I felt I was being misrepresented. I am not like that. I do not have that much hatred nor do I want to spread such harmful lies about sexual minorities. Perhaps that is the source of the anger.

Although he didn't say it, I sort of took home the message that "you must be happy first before you can do your best to help others". My initial goal/strategy was to silence the homophobes, bash them back and expose their stupidity and all. But I realise, as a champion of diversity, that method totally goes against the principles of this form of activism.

I related the many hurdles, doubters, critics and bashers I have come across in my short time in queer rights/awareness activism (maybe it's a good thing I was given that amount of attention in the first place) to my friend and he told me there was no point trying to make everyone happy and I had to do what I can in my capacity. There will always be individuals, people and groups who will weigh you down with expectations and their agenda, but it is important to concentrate on your agenda and be patient.

Sometimes, you need not match the urgency of the people/ideas you are fighting against. My friend believes that change (i.e. queer advocacy) will take place slowly over a few generations and work today is all about laying the framework/foundations.

While it might be a seemingly simplistic two-horse race between homophobes and queer-affirming people, there exist many factions in each group with the same dream, but different strategies to reaching the goal. My lecturer once told me it is only natural that groups of similar interests split and/or multiply.

An ally was angry with me for not being active enough during the Aware saga. I had openly advocated for a better understanding of what Aware stands for, and urged people to join Aware not for the sole purpose of joining one camp to vote out the other, but for the reason that they genuinely care about women's issues in Singapore. Both of us shared the same goal, that we didn't like what the new guard (Josie Lau and gang) represented, but had different agenda. It's just like that and bridges between allies are burnt. We don't dovetail to become formidable, but we collide and self-destruct. No one wins, because I consider victory when there is a change in society rather than an achievement on my part or that a point of mine was proven right.

I don't think people should be afraid of standing up for what they believe in and helping others. I have the impression that to be "ultimate activist", you must be a animal-loving, anti-death penalty, pro-LGBT rights, advocate of ethnic minority and migrant rights/awareness, free speech advocating vegetarian. But that is more a myth than a reality. If you want to help someone or some group, just stand up and do what you can. No one will expect your help, so every little thing you do is just a bonus. You can be part of a group, or speak in your own capacity. Just don't let anger be the driving force of your activism. And on top of asking yourself what you want to change and how, you should ask yourself if you are helping others or helping yourself.


mire said...

Hi Sam. Do consider whether this is a case of not recognising privilege.

Sam Ho said...

i think it's a case of whether or not we're using privilege to help others.

mire said...

I meant that privilege may be affecting your view of anger. I should put it another way. I think that anger itself is not the problem: anger is a human emotion and an inevitable product of repression. Some people use it as motivation. There's nothing wrong with that. Anger can be directed to good purposes and people do things for different reasons - ultimately it is behaviour that matters, not emotion, and there's no point comparing levels of nobility!

There can be different types of activism, and I guess you are working it out for yourself here. For what it's worth as anonymous commenter, I think you're doing meaningful work and I respect you for that.