Activism aims at change. But what has to stay the same for us to bring about this change? A great challenge when conducting activism is being able to understand which issues you are aiming to change in addition to which structures you are actually perpetuating when trying to bring about change. To a certain extent human rights activism has certain similarities with both communist, neo-liberal and Christian missionary movements in that they attempt to unite society or indeed the whole world equally in one ideological framework. Studying the criticisms which these movements throw at each other can therefore prove pretty educational. In order to understand the danger of sameness following change, I turned to Slavoj Žižek – a neo-communist thinker who mainly criticizes the contemporary democratic, neo-liberal, imbalanced status quo of the world.
Mr Žižek divides violence into two categories, subjective and objective violence. Differentiating the two types of violence is a difference in standpoint from which the observer views violence. Subjective violence is observed on a non-violent zero level background, against which violence forms a disturbance of the ‘normal peaceful’ state of things. To see objective violence one needs to examine exactly the normal peaceful state of things, because objective violence is inherent to structures of normalcy. Whereas subjective violence is any form of direct physical/ verbal/ ideological (terror, racism, incitement, sexual discrimination), objective violence is inherent to a system and expressed in subtle forms of coercion and the sustaining of relations of domination and exploitation.
Complementing this theory is Žižek’s ‘First as Tragedy then as Farce’, which describes the conscientious neo-liberal’s reaction to the past decade’s financial breakdown; a ‘socially responsible’ eco-capitalism. As awareness has risen about the exploitative and catastrophic consequences of free market systems, businesses and organizations are requested to serve ecological goals, support the struggle against poverty and fight for other ‘worthy’ ends. Capitalism now offers its participants goods and services that compensate the negative consequences of capitalism (fairtrade coffee, shell sponsoring efforts against poverty, HIV and AIDS), in order to keep its participants happy and continue the patterns within which the consumers participate. Thus, following the financial crisis, an expression of subjective violence has led to the increased support of objective violence which made the outburst of subjective violence possible in the first place.
Similar contradictions rendering action pointless and counter-effective are most definitely possible in all other forms of activism (besides the above ethical-capitalism). When we volunteer to teach English in a different country, what are we doing? Are we empowering those we are teaching or are we strengthening embedded structures of power? What about for instance the utilization and appropriation of certain standpoints to distract from our actual violence. Extreme right political parties in Western Europe ‘prove’ themselves non-discriminatory by openly supporting gay rights whilst speaking against religious freedom. NGOs working hard to ensure the alleviation of poverty leave their computers on all night. Paradoxically activists are usually very active on only one point or ideology and therefore risk perpetuating forms of violence they may not even be aware of. Not aiming for change is not the answer, but not becoming a ‘one issue kind of guy’ is.