Why Stoicism is Great for Activism

IMAGE DESCRIPTION: A picture of the Earth (albeit a very badly-drawn one probably rife with inaccuracies) has on it somewhere a red icon of a generic person - symbolizing that we are inherently a part of a larger world. The world is shown against a black background representing the vastness of space - but with a few equally-badly-drawn stars in the background to remind us that, even in the Universe, we are not alone. This image is for articles in this blog that discuss Cosmopolitanism - a teaching, inherent to Stoicism, about our interconnectedness with the rest of the Universe.
Some people may have their misgivings about the efficacy of Stoicism as a philosophy for activists. However, in reality, it is about as effective a philosophy for activism as there can be.
The other day, at a protest against Trump’s wall and against his anti-immigration policies, I explained to a number of people how Stoicism can be the basis of an ideological counter to the anti-progressive terraforming that extreme fundamentalists have done to America’s ideological landscape. The responses that I got ranged from the very-receptive to the very-dismissive. However, one response that I got from someone was that person expressing concern that Stoicism might not be an effective philosophy for activists.

My response, of course, was to offer a very brief explanation of why Stoicism was the ideal philosophy for activists. However, it was a brief explanation, limited to a few sentences. Here, I would like to provide a more in-depth answer to this reservation about Stoicism.

I did not have a chance in this situation to learn what was the cause of this person’s reservations about Stoicism as a philosophy for activists. However – typically, when someone has such a reservation about Stoicism it is for one of two reasons. The first one is a blatant misconception about Stoicism, that it encourages people to support the status-quo without resistance. Obviously, Cato the Younger didn’t get the memo on that one when he resisted Julius Caesar’s rise to power – nor did George Washington when he resisted British occupation of the newly-forming United States. Nor did a number of other movers of change in our world’s history who were guided by Stoicism.

The other reason is an all-too-prevalent model of activism that is founded on the use of anger as a means by which to mobilize activists on the grass-roots level. This school of thought teaches that anger is a powerful tool that unites people in an effort to demand change.

However, while it is true that anger can be powerful tool to motivate people to take-up activism in the first place, anger-driven activism has serious drawbacks. Anger-driven activists are susceptible to various forms of burnout – and also prone to being emotionally motivated to make self-defeating decisions that can have serious consequences – some sooner, and some later.

The solution to this is to offer the activist an upgrade of sorts in which the anger is traded in for something much more powerful – a resolve to properly do their part in the effort to effect change. When activists make this upgrade, which is what they achieve through Stoic philosophy, a number of benefits are realized.

A Stoic activist is at lower risk of being discouraged by setbacks.
Let’s face it. In the struggle for social justice, there will be good days at the end of which we all will be celebrating. There may even be good weeks, good months, even good years. At such times, all allies in the struggle for social justice will feel encouraged.

However – there will also be times of setback — and these, too, can be events of a single day, but can also last for quite a while as well. There will also be long stretches of time in which progress is made, but at a much slower rate than we would prefer. In these times, the fire of an anger-based activist can give way to discouragement, even to despair.

A Stoic activist, on the other hand, will be able to remain encouraged even during these externally bleak times. This is because, even though Stoic activists, like all other activists, prefer that progress be made and be made at a substantial rate – their actual desire is to do their own part in the Resistance faithfully and correctly. Since such faithfulness to purpose is well within each activist’s locus of control, Stoic activists will always be able to have what they care most about. Therefore, in these periods of very slow progress or even setback with regard to externals – Stoic activists will be the ones most able to remain strong.

A Stoic activist is harder to intimidate.
In the history of the struggle for social justice, there have been many cases of those who were resisting the change making deliberate efforts to intimidate those who were campaigning for social justice. At times, those resisters of change have used force – and many people were even killed campaigning for social justice.

If activists are encouraged to cultivate a passion-driven mindset so that their anger can be harnessed in activism – they will also be more vulnerable to another passion – fear. Sometimes, the anger will overpower the fear and the activist will stick with the struggle for that reason – albeit in a much more stressed-out state than their Stoic counterpart. At other times, the fear might win out, and the activist will abandon the cause.

Also – sometimes an activist may feel sufficiently backed to the wall that fear of backing down is stronger than the fear of keeping up the struggle. But this, too, can not be guaranteed. Furthermore, reliance on this effect can result in members of a marginalized group being on their own at key parts of the struggle – as it is unlikely that an ally from the more privileged class will feel their backs to the wall in this way.

Stoic activists, on the other hand, the further they advance in their Stoic training, the less vulnerable they will be to fear. This is because, the more they progress in their Stoic training, the more they are able to emotionally register the fact that their true good lies in things that are truly theirs, such as faithfully doing their part in the Resistance correctly – and not in any external that those who resist change have the power to threaten.

A Stoic activist is less likely to be emotionally manipulated into bad decisions.
In an article titled Are You an Activist? 5 Ways to Stop Sabotaging your Cause, Alethia Luna talks about how some people, meaning to be activists, instead become what she refers to as “reactionaries”. The article is full of examples of ways in which well-meaning people trying to be activists can allow their anger to motivate them to do things that are quite harmful to their cause. She discusses it so well, as a matter of fact, that it may be redundant for me to go into details on that in this answer.

I could mention the danger of how anger can motivate people to have personal vendettas against individuals – rather than the institutions or policies that these individuals make the foolish choice to embrace — but she already discusses that in her article.

She makes many more very astute observations on how letting your emotions steer you can cause activists to sabotage their causes in many ways. At one point, she even expresses the extremely Stoic insight that we, as activists, can’t force others to change their ways, and can do no more than offer encouragement.

Unfortunately, despite this surprisingly Stoic insight of hers, Luna stops short of questioning the conventional wisdom of activist circles that anger is something that should be cultivated. She makes many specific suggestions on what activists ought to do different – and her suggestions are not bad suggestions at all. Nonetheless, most anger-based activists, if they make a habit of following these suggestions of hers, will end up being exhausted by them – and that will happen because they will be constantly repressing what their passions are persistently urging to do.

Stoic activists, on the other hand, will have a much easier time implementing these suggestions of hers – even those that they don’t think of themselves. Instead of repressing the ramifications that occur when you cultivate passions in order to spur activism, it will be far more effective on the long term to use Stoic philosophy to address the cause of these self-defeating behaviors of activists.

A Stoic activist is less prone to waste energy on unconstructive fretting that would contribute to the burnout of an anger-based activist.
Activists who cultivate their passions for the purpose of using their anger to move them in activism are going to be constantly worried about the possibility of their activism failing to achieve its external goals (unless they are in denial – which can also be harmful, as it can contribute to the movement letting its guard down at crucial times). This energy that they spend worrying about that possibility of failures beyond their locus of control will drain from the energy that they need to spend doing whatever they can actually do about it.

Also – the energy that they spend just being pissed off and fuming at the establishment is also energy that otherwise they could channel into constructive activism against it.

And no – Stoicism does not call for tone-policing.
Reading all that I write about how the cultivation of anger is self-defeating for activism, and how Stoically trained activists would be far more effective – some of you might be concerned that this might be an endorsement of a very dismissive and oppressive behavior known as “tone policing”. However – that is not at all the case. I won’t go too much into that in this article, though, because I have already written an article about why tone-policing is unbecoming of a Stoic.
In Conclusion …
While anger can be an effective tool in bringing someone to the point of taking up activism in the first place – a Stoic sense of duty to work for the betterment of society can achieve that as well. Furthermore, from that point on, the sense of duty can greatly increase the effectiveness of the activist – while the cultivation of anger might bring short-term vigor, but at a huge cost.

So as to the question of whether or not Stoicism is an effective philosophy for activists – the answer is that it is by far the most effective one possible.

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