Dec 31, 2012

Specialized vs. general activism—which is better?

BACKGROUND: THE NATURE OF ACTIVISM. In my view, activism is the idea of working to change the circumstances—philosophical, cultural, social, or political—in which individuals live their lives. Activists for a more objective society work to improve the circumstances in which peaceful, productive, and honest individuals live by promoting reason and breaking down barriers to liberty. An architect designs buildings, and his clients pay him for doing so. The architect becomes an activist when he campaigns to abolish his city government's rights-violating regulations of architecture and construction. He is working to improve the legal circumstances in which architects design buildings.

Serious activism is long-term; the activist for a more objective society knows that influencing other rational individuals can be a slow process. Sometimes change—depending on the starting point and the depth of the problem —may happen only after years, decades, or generations of activism. The movement to end Prohibition of alcohol in the USA worked for thirteen years to abolish a single law.[1] The movement working to abolish slavery in the USA struggled for two centuries to destroy a set of pro-slavery laws and the slave society that had been built on them.[2] Some struggles, such as the war between reason and mysticism, have raged for thousands of years and will never end.

A LASER OR A CHANDELIER OF LEDS? Individuals who choose to be activists face an array of secondary choices. One choice is between general activism and specialized activism. General activism is broad in the scope of issues it covers. On Monday, a general activist might donate to a campaign to abolish a local sales tax; on Tuesday, he might speak to a local club in favor of abolishing narcotics laws for adults; on Wednesday, he might write a letter to a central African country to encourage it to release its political prisoners; and so forth. What makes a general activist general is the range of issues he can intelligently discuss. The generalist may be a full-time activist or one who dedicates a half hour per day, every day, for the remainder of his life. The generalist may operate close to home (carrying a sign while "demonstrating"; writing letters to a local newspaper; organizing neighborhood discussion groups; and so forth). Michael Neibel, a retired gentleman, is an example of a generalist. In his weblog and elsewhere, he comments on a range of issues.[3] 

Or a general activist may work at an international level (speaking to an economics club in London, appearing on national television programs in the USA, writing books, or conducting weekly radio programs reviewing and analyzing news events. Yaron Brook, president of The Ayn Rand Institute is an example.[4]

For some activists, one benefit of general activism is the opportunity to think about and research a variety of subjects. Such an activist, however, needs to be a quick study if he expects to keep up with the flood of news items that are common conversation among his friends or on radio talk shows. He needs to have the mental skills for rapidly identifying a problem (for example, identifying the issue underlying the debate over "gun control"), becoming familiar with the philosophical theory (the right of self-defense grounded in nature), and researching the facts (What kind of weapon is required for self-defense in various situations, while not endangering others?). 

Without adequate thinking and research, the general activist merely sounds ignorant when questioned by friends in discussions or challenged by opponents in debate. Therein lies one of the drawbacks of general activism: having knowledge that is wide but shallow and therefore not persuasive when confronting an opponent who has specialized in studying and debating the subject.

Specialized activism is narrow in scope. A specialized activist chooses one subject, a subject that he expects to master, that is, know so well that he can teach the subject: its fundamental principles, its key issues, and the problems of application. An example would be an activist specializing in a move to abolish federal anti-trust laws in the USA. He needs to know: (1) what those laws and accompanying regulations actually are, by reading and understanding them; (2) who among legislators (and their cronies) sponsored the original legislation and continue to expand it today; and (3) what would be the best plan for abolishing them.

Preparing for specialized activism may take years. During that time, the specialized activist need not be silent. He can: (1) conduct study groups on the issue,  (2) write a weblog that reports his findings as he conducts research, and (3) ask questions in specialized forums, for the purpose of collecting the type of responses he will encounter from the supporters of anti-trust laws.

For some individuals, a drawback of specialization is isolation. Few if any others will share his interest. The specialist may be off-stage for long periods of time while he is preparing. Likewise, years may pass before he acquires a reputation strong enough to attract supporters, financial contributors (if needed), and inquiries from journalists.

Specialization is a matter of degree. One form is specializing in a single, but broad abstraction. An example would be specializing in the promotion of the metaphysical principle of naturalism: We live in one world, the natural world, a world in which all entities have a particular identity and act accordingly.  This specialization is narrow in one way, because it is only one tenet of a philosophy of reason, but it is broad in its potential applications—for example, in the debate about a theory of evolution or in advocating the scientific method—but the activist's continuing focus would be on spreading the principle of naturalism, as a way of laying a foundation for a philosophical revolution.

Another form of specialization deals with particulars. For instance, an activist in the USA might focus on abolishing Social Security. He would need to know its history, its laws, and possible plans for phasing it out. He would accumulate a vast amount of information that he can use to establish his authority on the subject and to illustrate his broader points about ethics.

An example of specialization is maintaining a website——that collects examples of frivolous or absurd lawsuits, as an effort to make the legal system focus more seriously on the issue of rights.

MAKING A CHOICE. Which approach is better—specialized activism or general activism? A direct response to that question must be another question: Better for whom—the individual activist or the individuals he hopes to influence or both?

First, which approach to activism is more effective in changing a culture? Based on my reading of history, observation of the culture today, and personal experience, I would say both approaches are required for a movement to succeed. In a particular field, such as nuclear power, a specialist is needed to persuade decision-makers (in the industry and in Congress) and decision-influencers. In a division of labor society, a generalist can spread the word about particular issues or the principles that underlie them to the man in the street, the honest but ill-informed man who might vote for a political candidate proposing change toward a more objective society.

Second, which is best for the activist? This is the most important question. I would say that the approach best for the activist himself is the approach that is most likely to sustain his activism for the remainder of his life, given his abilities, his interests, his personality, and his ability to acquire the necessary skills. The activist knows himself. He can discover which approach will give him the fuel to walk the long road ahead.

For me, specializing is the best way to work because it allows me plenty of opportunity to study, which I enjoy, and to create a range of intermediate and long-term products that might have some influence on a few individuals who might, in turn, influence a few others.

The choice is yours. Which do you choose?

Burgess Laughlin
Author of The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith, here

[1] For a brief sketch of Prohibition and the movement to end it: [2] For a sketch of the history of the movement to abolish slavery: [3] For Michael Neibel's weblog: [4] For Yaron Brook, see (a), and (b)