Activism: reaction or response?

Anthea Lawson
Dec 21st, 2020

In these last few weeks of winter lockdown, I’ve been taking part in an online course hosted by the Nigerian philosopher Bayo Akomolafe, called We Will Dance With Mountains.

It’s framed and delivered in Bayo’s resonant, glorious and occasionally giddy-making mix of mythopoetic and scholarly language (for newcomers seeking a full immersion experience, begin with his essay I, Coronavirus: Mother. Monster. Activist.) The course is about many things: making sanctuary in times of crisis, identity politics, post-humanism, dismantling whiteness. 

And some of what it is ‘about’ is, for me, simply the being-ness of being in the experience of it. There’s a disjointed moment that occurs as I shut the door on my children charging about with tinsel and tree decorations in the darkening afternoon, and open a Zoom window on four or five hundred people across every time zone. Those on the Pacific coast of the U.S. nurse coffee cups in sharp early morning sunlight, those east of where I am in the UK are sometimes already lying back on cushions in the dark of the following night. 

Scanning the mosaic of faces against bright or shaded backgrounds, I can’t help thinking of those windows that Will opens up onto alternative worlds in Philip Pullman’s story His Dark Materials. Morning sunlight from another world can appear, through the opening between worlds, as a streak of tantalising bright light in a purplish rainy place. Zoom is our opening between worlds, if the gathering is well held, as this one mostly is. In the assembly that Bayo’s words and questions have convened, the participants have very different starting points and experiences, as the discussions around identity and whiteness make clear.

Yet my sense is that everyone taking part has arrived here, at this meeting place, a world within worlds, with their own version of the same set of questions.

For some, the question sounds like this: ‘what are we to do in times like these?’ For others, the question is: ‘what are we to do once we have grasped the limitations of whatever we have already been doing?’ Not everyone present is an activist, yet a common thread, here, is activism. It’s not so much the primary topic of discussion, as a constant unavoidable presence and question. 

I first met Bayo two and a half years ago when I was beginning the research for my own enquiry into activism. My question was close to the latter of those two. I had realised that the policy campaigning I was engaged in – and not unsuccessfully, on its own terms – was not going to cut it in the face of the overwhelming urgency of creating an economic system that did not undermine the biological basis of life on earth. 

It’s true that I could have continued what I was doing with more of a ‘movement ecology’ approach, in which I viewed my work (attempting to prevent companies and banks from violating human rights and fuelling corruption and environmental devastation) as just one part of the necessary changes towards a more just world, with other people and other organisations taking on other aspects. Or I could have switched the focus of my activism to a perhaps more systemic pressure point, such as, for example, advocating for degrowth or ‘doughnut’ economics. 

But at that moment of stepping back from what I had been doing, I felt that I needed to question not just my strategy but the deep interior of my activism.

This wasn’t about the necessity of activism: in my view, and in the face of our interlocking crises, that remains self-evident. But I did want to examine what we were bringing to it: our own need to be right, to destroy our opponent, to be the one who knows, the one who might save the day. 

I wanted to talk with Bayo because I had seen, in his writing about what he calls ‘post-activism’, an articulation of the same phenomenon that I was noticing in my own practice of activism: our tendency to recreate or mirror the problems we are trying to fix, and to use the tools that are part of the problem to try to solve it. 

In that conversation in spring 2018, I was taken by a phrase that I now notice he uses regularly: ‘the times are urgent, let us slow down’. On first hearing these words, the activist in me wanted to resist them: surely, right now, we need more activism, not less? So I went at that conversation with all of my still-instrumental questions about what we should now ‘do’ instead, once we see the limitations of the activism we’d previously been doing. 

What I couldn’t see, at that point, was that the very need to be instantly doing something when we perceive a problem is – yes that’s right – yet another manifestation of the problem.

And to acknowledge this entanglement in what we are trying to change is not the same as to suggest that we roll over and don’t ever do anything, which, in my initial reactivity, is how I first heard it. 

How is reactive activity part of the problem of ecological destruction and social injustice? There are so many ways; here are just a few. The treadmill of constant constructive doings, that mask our inability to just ‘be’ and to observe what arises, is what fuels the work-and-consume ethic of endless-growth capitalism. Quick-response activity helps to keep us numb to our own discomfort about our own complicity in injustice and ecological destruction. For those with privilege, fast and busy action can help keep us numb to the intolerable feelings of shame and vulnerability that we might have hidden behind the shield of privilege, and that can be so painful to acknowledge. 

We Will Dance with Mountains is still unfolding, though it is clear that in Bayo’s terms of ‘making sanctuary’, what we end up doing may not necessarily look like ‘activism’ or even the trying-to-change-the-world activities that many people are engaged in but prefer not to label as activism. His approach is a coming down to earth, an acknowledgment that there is no ‘there’ to reach, no point at which we know we will have done everything that is necessary. I’m happy to make that descent. 

And yet, I’m simultaneously still interested in how we do activism. The lessons of post-activism, in my view, can also be fruitfully applied to the ongoing-activism that many people are committed to doing, and I say this with full apologies to Bayo for what might be my wilful misuse of his intention.

In this case, what I have learnt, in two years of talking to campaigners and thinking about how we try to change the world, is that there is a difference between reacting and responding.

We are locked into reacting until we can slow down enough to notice what’s happening and question what we’re doing. 

To question, for example, whether we’re bringing undigested and unacknowledged emotional material from other problems and other places to add to our anger about this issue that we are acting on. To question why it is that we, personally, feel the need to dehumanise the person whose viewpoint we are opposing, when the very thing they are doing that we wish to oppose is the dehumanisation of someone else. 

And I have realised that I can now hear those words, that the times are urgent and we must slow down, with less reactivity.

Anthea Lawson is an activist and writer whose book The Entangled Activist: Learning to recognise the master’s tools is published by Perspectiva Press. She has worked on campaigns to shut down tax havens, prevent banks from facilitating corruption and environmental devastation, and control the arms trade. At Global Witness, she launched a prize-winning campaign that changed the rules on secret company ownership and resulted in new laws in dozens of countries. She trained as a reporter at The Times and studied history at Cambridge. Find out more here

You can follow Perspectiva on Twitter & subscribe to our YouTube channel.

Subscribe to our newsletter via the form below to receive updates on publications, events, new videos, and more…

Perspectiva is registered in England and Wales as: Perspectives on Systems, Souls and Society (1170492​​​​). Our charitable aims are: ‘To advance the education of the public in general, particularly amongst thought leaders in the public realm on the subject of the relationships between complex global challenges and the inner lives of human beings, and how these relationships play out in society; and to promote research, activities and discourse for the public benefit in these subjects and to publish useful results’. Aside from modest income from books and events, all our income comes from donations from philanthropic trusts and foundations and further donations are therefore welcome. Please consider donating via the button below, or via Patreon.