What Activists Can Too Easily Forget

Activism today, call it engaged citizenship, ought to have more humility than it often does, and perhaps a bit more compassion and curiosity, too. No matter how great our understanding, we'll always have something valuable to teach and something valuable to learn.
By Tim Hjersted / filmsforaction.org
Oct 29, 2022
What Activists Can Too Easily Forget
“Don't be in such a hurry to condemn a person because he doesn't do what you do or think as you think or as fast. There was a time when you didn't know what you know today.” ― Malcolm X

I often think about this quote from Malcolm X. It's a point that really can't be made too often.

After becoming socially conscious to a certain degree it can be easy to fall into the trap of condemning or judging those who aren't as awakened as we are. We forget there was a time when we weren't as informed as we are today.

I've also found that shaming people for their lack of knowledge or perspective doesn't work. It may offer personal catharsis, but yelling on street corners or via social media things like "Wake up America!" doesn't help wake people up.

When we think of the masses as unthinking sheeple too stupid or lazy to know better, it cuts off the part of our brain that can look deeply and empathize with the deeper environmental circumstances that have created the mass-awareness crisis that our civilization faces.

In my experience, it was by random luck that I was born into a family that encouraged me to think freely and didn't teach me that there was only one true source of knowledge and that all other sources are heresy. It was by random chance that I was exposed to books like Ishmael by Daniel Quinn and magazines like Adbusters, which challenged the 'givens' of our culture and sent me on a new path of learning. It was by chance that I grew up and met certain people that exposed me to alternative ways of seeing the world.

So from this vantage point, I have a lot of compassion for the children that were born into situations that weren't so lucky. They grew up in more rigid religious families. They went to schools where the teachers and students around them were raised in similar environments. They were exposed to the white-washed versions of history and social perspectives that made it unthinkable to question their great country or superior economic system. When they came home from school, they were exposed to the same corporate media which homogenizes thought, covertly supports the corporate interests hiding behind both political parties, and pretends to be fair and balanced while never letting certain perspectives on the air. Then, of course, we have to consider how the mass media - which imparts a selective status-quo point of view to millions of people, is itself a product of the miseducation of our youth by an educational system that was also itself designed by people who were miseducated with the often subtle or not-so-subtle racist, sexist, nationalist, capitalist, religious views of the dominant culture.

So with all this in mind, I believe people growing up in this society need our compassion and empathy, not more condemnation.

It's also more effective. Creating a relationship with someone from a place of empathy vs a place of judgment will create two different relationships and two different outcomes. From my experience, adults, like children, learn and grow better when the relationship is built on the former.

There are certainly a lot of adults who are too far gone, and too indoctrinated into the cultural views of their environment to be able to transform. I'm thinking of people like Trump or maybe one of our older family members, but when I think of the 5-year-old Trump, before he was taught to be filled with so much disdain for others, before he was traumatized by his abusive father and the aberrant cultural values of his family's social circle, I have a lot of compassion for the innocent child that was long ago killed by the world he grew up in. I don't know what to say about adults like this, other than to find ways to minimize their harm to others.

Most of my energies I want to put towards those who are still on their journey, who still have an open mind, and who haven't been so damaged by our world that change is impossible.

Focusing on media and education for the youth of the world is possibly our best chance to transform and break the cycle of miseducation. Because if we don't do anything, in 20 years, we will have more wounded souls perpetuating the wounds they inherited from our society.


Tim Hjersted is the director and co-founder of Films For Action, based in Lawrence, KS

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