On the Nature of Activism


Note: Recently, there has been a campaign from several activist groups to change the UNM seal. The text below is based on a piece I wrote to send to the UNM Board of Regents.

Update 2016 May 17: See some tweets at the end which exemplify exactly the problem this essay describes.

Let us begin with an obvious acknowledgement. UNM’s seal is not very well done, at least by the aesthetic standards of our time. It uses an ugly font, has bland colors, and isn’t particularly visionary. It could do a better job of representing our University in today’s world. How we haven’t replaced it with something which is more modern, aesthetic, and forward-looking, I do not quite know.

The seal is not, however, racist. Even when that word is used as an adjective. For if it were, then the seal would be advocating for the superiority of Western culture above all others. The seal does not does not do so in any way, shape, or form. A frontiersman and a conquistador, in and of themselves, are not racist symbols. They simply are what they are. No more, and no less.

You might rightfully say, however, there are some people who see racism in the seal. Which is unarguable - the existence of the #abolishtheracistseal hashtag on Twitter indicates as much. There are some who, when looking at it, cannot help but see it in an imperialist, colonialist, or racist way. Who are these people? Broadly speaking , let’s call them “activists”. It is their nature, and the fact that activists have an insatiable appetite for “change”, which should give this University’s administration pause.

If the purpose of activism is to advocate on behalf of a special interest, what are the interests of an advocacy group? By its nature, the group must find things to advocate for, or to protest against. Either necessitates they have some set of demands. Thus, the interest of the group is in seeing that its demands are met. Crucially, the existence of an advocacy group can only continue as long as they have unmet demands. If there are no demands, then what’s the point of the group?

If the purpose of having leaders of the group is to make sure the group is led, then what is the interest of its leaders? To continue having a group to lead. Without the group, there is no need for leadership. A dangerous incentive structure naturally takes shape; namely, that the leaders of the group have a vested interest in the continued existence of the group, if only to ensure the continued existence of their position. If there is no group, then what’s the point of having a leader?

As the leaders of advocacy groups guide and direct their efforts, there is a tendency for advocacy groups to make demands for as long as they are able, even when their previous demands are met, because the leaders of the group wish to remain in charge. In the history of any special interest group, or advocacy group, or even simply any group which claims to represent some set of people, have such groups ever voluntarily disbanded after their demands were met? No. They always demand more, primarily at the behest of their leaders.

This is plainly evident when one reads the petition put online by The Red Nation and UNM’s Kiva Club. These advocacy groups don’t just want the seal changed; no, they have eleven other demands as well! And if the University were to give into their demands, would they be satisfied? The members might be, but the leaders would not. For if their demands were all met, then there would be no need for these groups, and their leaders would have no group to lead. Now we see why leaders of advocacy groups often proclaim “There’s still more work to be done!”. Even if the University were to agree to change the seal, among other things, such groups will always come back with more demands.

The great tragedy in most advocacy groups is that those leading them often do so not out of a sense of true compassion for the people they represent. Rather, they wish to be seen as important. They wish to take on “the System”, to fight, and to rally others to support them while they do so. Instead of looking to the people they “represent”, and seeing how they can help them, they instead craft their own agenda and bill it to their members as being in their interests, even if the members don’t think so.

This tragedy is playing out right here, on the issue of the seal. As reported by the Daily Lobo, some of the Native American students on campus, the very set of people The Red Nation and UNM Kiva Club are advocating “for”, had no idea these groups were acting to oppose the seal! What is more, some disagreed with the actions of these groups, saying they divide the UNM campus! Consequently, one is led to wonder whether the leaders of these groups are particularly interested in UNM’s Native American student population.

Do we really wish to listen to groups whose actions and demands threaten to pit students against one another? I don’t think so. Could UNM’s seal be replaced? Certainly. Should it? Possibly, but not as a hasty, knee-jerk reaction to the complaints of an advocacy group. Even if you think their demand to replace the seal is sensible (I do not), you may want to ask yourself whether they make this demand from a place of understanding UNM’s Native American students and their needs, or whether they do so simply to fulfill their own illusions of importance. If the former, let us undertake thoughtful and considered steps towards deciding whether to replace the seal. If the latter, we do not have to listen to these groups.

What is more, we must be mindful that the leaders of these groups have an incentive to continue to demand more from the University, so you can never, ever “appease” them fully. However much you give them, they will always come back for more.

Some tweets which exemplify exactly the issues associated with trying to appease activist groups.

From earlier this month:

Relatively recently:

Also, this letter to the Editor of the Daily Lobo provides some food for thought with regards to the appetite of activists for more “change”.