Print Edition: October 9, 2013
Would you avoid making friends with someone if they were an activist?
A new study from the University of Toronto shows that people don’t want to be associated with environmentalists or feminists, even if they support those ideals themselves. Participants indicated that they were not interested in becoming friends with “typical” activists who organized rallies and protests, and were somewhat more likely to accept “atypical” activists who engaged in milder forms of activism like fundraisers or events.
Researchers also reported that participants were more reluctant to change their behavior if it was promoted by the “typical” activist than if it was promoted by the less aggressive “atypical” activist.
As troubling as this research is, it seems easy to guess the participants’ reasons. No one likes to be harassed or nagged, and activists can stir up our guilty consciences, making us feel like we’re not doing enough. Unfortunately, it seems there’s also a deeper level of prejudice at work.
Another study performed by the same researchers revealed that participants associated activists with shockingly negative stereotypes. Feminists were most often described as “man-hating” and “unhygienic,” while the most common words associated with environmentalists were “tree-hugger” and “hippie.”
What’s disturbing about these results is that vitally important causes like environmentalism and feminism are being singled out and cruelly stereotyped. This seems especially confusing when we consider that most Canadians believe in equality between men and women, which is the ultimate goal of feminism. Similarly, environmentalism has become so popular over the last decade that “greenwashing” (deceptively portraying a product as more environmentally friendly than it really is) has become a common advertising practice. People seem to support feminism and environmentalism, yet dislike feminists and environmentalists. Why?
Whenever a movement or a cause is adopted as an identity, it becomes easy to forget the humanity of the people who support it. A divisive “us-or-them” mentality is the result. Thanks to years of media sensationalism, activists are often perceived to be wacky radicals and extremists, even if they’re peacefully protesting for higher wages or equal rights – and the unkind labels tossed around in newsrooms and on talk shows don’t help. Environmentalists are called “eco-terrorists.” Women who ask to be paid fairly are “feminazis.” These words turn human beings into faceless caricatures, easy to mock and easy to fear. Who would want to be friends with them?
It’s clear from this study that we all need to play more nicely. It’s easy to get angry and passionate about the problems in the world, but it’s clear that aggressively touting your beliefs isn’t going to win you much support. On the other hand, assuming that people are dirty, die-hard “eco-terrorists” because they’re holding signs denouncing the Enbridge pipeline project is unfair and, frankly, silly.
We shouldn’t stop protesting. We shouldn’t stop caring about women’s rights or pipelines or global warming – the world desperately needs people who care. But this study makes it clear that the traditional method of marching and carrying signs turns people off. Many activist groups are sensing this and turning to the internet to circulate petitions, send letters, share photos, write blogs, and run crowdfunding campaigns. These are more respectful, inclusive ways to gain support for a cause without making anyone feel like it’s being shoved in their face, and anyone with internet access can participate.
But as useful as the internet can be, it will never have the same power as the protest rally. Our physical presence is the most simple and most effective way of demonstrating our belief in a cause, and turning up at a protest shows a commitment of time and effort. A crowd of 10,000 holding signs and chanting in a city square means much more than 10,000 digital signatures on an online petition. It demonstrates the kind of solidarity that can make a government quake in its boots.
That’s why these negative connotations around feminism, environmentalism, and the word “activist” need to disappear. Real human beings are behind those labels, putting their energy into making the world a better place. They deserve to be treated with respect – whether or not you agree with their point of view.