We cannot allow activism to become a dirty word

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Slowly, activism is becoming a dirty word – one with a range of negative connotations which include being disruptive, idealistic, out-of-touch, unintelligent, and some might even say traitorous.

Not only are these assumptions wrong, they are detrimental to our society. As Tee Zhuo pointed out in his Straits Times article, building “a democratic society based on justice and equality” and achieving “progress for our nation”, which all Singaporeans pledge to do, “requires all kinds of activism by people who aren’t afraid to point out hard truths to keep Singapore not just going, but truly progressing, and speak those truths to power”.

But are there bad activists? Of course. Because ‘activist’ is a broad word which encompasses any person who advocates for change, it necessarily includes those whose ideas and methods are problematic. However, to generalize all activists as such is quite silly. Amos Yee is an activist, but Lee Kuan Yew and his team of visionaries were activists too; and if not for their activism, we would not be the Singapore that we are today.

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Singapore’s most famous activist

Yet, there is a concerted effort by pro-establishment extremist figures to treat ‘activism’ as if it were a dirty word and attack those they label pejoratively as ‘activists’ – all while probably blind to the irony that by fighting against activism, they themselves are being activists.

At the same time, activism appears to be something often shunned upon by authority figures. I am sure many will recall the incident in July where the vice-principal of St. Joseph’s Institution, after having unceremoniously cancelled a talk by an LGBT activist at the last moment, lectured his students on the ills of activism by saying how “any form of activism is divisive” and how that was something they should think about “as they grow”.

Furthermore, it does not help that the mainstream media uses language which purports to cast all activists as one and the same. Take the following headline, for example, published by the Straits Times on 5 September 2018:

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That person is Jolovan Wham. His parents gave him a name for a reason. It therefore puzzles me as to why the Straits Times chose instead to attribute his comments to “activist” as if his comments represent the views of all activists. It is exactly this sort of use (or one might say abuse) of the word ‘activist’ which leads to hasty generalisations and negative stereotypes.

You might say: hold on, these are just words. However, words shape our reality; the ideas that we attach to the words we use and hear can prime our behaviour in ways that we might not even realize.

If this trend continues, we will reach a point where it becomes acceptable for someone to dismiss whatever you have to say simply because you are “one of those activists” – no need to hear about your cause, or what you actually think; and no need to have to raise counter-arguments against you. As long as you are guilty of ‘activising’, you are immediately discredited. This might fit nicely into the objectives of those who support and benefit from the status quo, but is problematic for the development of our country.

So what can we do to prevent activism from turning into a dirty word?

First, we need to reclaim the word ‘activism’ by reminding people that ‘activism’ does not mean Amos Yee or Han Hui Hui. Activism is a broad term that encompasses anyone who supports a cause or advocates for change – Lee Kuan Yew was an activist; Amos Yee is an activist. Some activists are bad; some activists are good, and someone is not automatically bad just because he is an activist.

Second, activists should not be discouraged by the attacks against activism – if anything, they should fight even harder for their causes and do the best they can to succeed in order to demonstrate the sort of good that activism can bring to our society.

Third, we need to create healthy conversations about the things that divide us. Activism is necessarily divisive because it involves an element of disruption of the status quo, and opponents of activism argue that this disruptiveness threatens to destabilise society and brings chaos to our community. We need to prove them wrong. We need to show that we are an intelligent, mature society that can confront the issues that divide us in a constructive and meaningful way. We need to demonstrate that we can we can deal with disruptive views and are willing to stop and listen, rather than take up arms against those who disagree with us.

When former US President Barack Obama was asked recently about the difficulty in changing the status quo, he responded that change will always come with some resistance or at the very least some discomfort because “somebody’s benefitting from the status quo” – and they have an incentive to keep things that way. Hence, the demonization of activists and the crusade against activism should not come as a surprise, it is up to us now to resist it.

By Rio Hoe

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(Update: the Straits Times later changed the headline to read “…Activist: Jolovan Wham”. The trace of its earlier misstep, however, is evident in the URL of the article)

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