The Etiquette of Activism. Vol. 15, Issue 37

“What,” a friend asked a few months ago, “is the etiquette of activism?” Courtesy and activism are not mutually exclusive, though many assume so. It could be argued that much activist behavior is Not Perfectly Proper, and Etiquetteer would have to agree. But multiple forms of activism are necessary for positive change to take place, a position Etiquetteer didn’t fully understand until reading years ago Martin Duberman’s history of the start of the gay rights movement, Stonewall. His account of the July Fourth meeting of the Mattachine Society illustrates this, with one woman’s plea for good behavior (“We should be firm, but just as amicable and sweet as —“) met with the fierce need for confrontation (“Sweet? Sweet! Bull****! . . . We have got to radicalize . . .”) And witness the sweeping changes in the last 47 years. Americans are having these discussions again now, today, finding once more the creative tension between assimilation and defiance, between words spoken in quiet hope and others shouted in raw outrage, all requiring urgent change.

But doesn’t it seem prim and prissy to associate a word like “etiquette” with a word like “activism” anyway? Does it matter if that clenched fist has a white glove on it? Etiquette is part of every aspect of our daily lives - why should activism be any different?

First, anger is a valid, even a necessary, emotion, but you're supposed to dominate it. Unharnessed anger leads to actions that harm one’s cause, such as violence and death threats, which are unacceptable. Etiquetteer supports efforts to recall the judge in the Stanford rape case, but not the threats of violence and death heaped on him and his family via the Internet. Open, spirited, vigorous questioning - not intimidation - should be part of every political system, especially the American system.

Second, think about your motives. Be brutally honest about your goals for your cause and for yourself. Do you want progress or effective change on a certain issue? Is your first purpose to vent your anger or other emotions? Are you looking for an excuse to attract attention to yourself, possibly with arrest? If your reasons veer more toward the last two questions, Etiquetteer urges you to reconsider. That’s more exhibitionism than activism. The cause belongs in the spotlight; you don’t.

Third, recognize the humanity of the other side, and show your humanity to them. Many find this difficult, especially the former. Everyone has traveled a different journey to realize what is, and isn’t, important to them. This makes fear such a strong motivator in activism - fear that one’s way of life will, or will not, change for the better. Demonizing the other side does not further progress.

To that end, comments about physical appearance are out of bounds. Donald Trump’s hair and complexion are easy targets, but it’s his statements, positions, and behavior that are truly controversial. It could also be suggested that activists that stoop to unkind remarks about physical appearance really have nothing more substantive to say.

Fourth, don’t be spoonfed what’s handed to you. Responsible activitists do their own research. Read widely and wisely: Seek out and absorb not just what Your Side of the Issue at Hand is publishing, but the Other Side as well. Check your sources and theirs, too. (Etiquetteer is particularly suspicious of meme graphics interpreting varying amounts of data.) Source checking and research also helps separate the wheat from the chaff, especially with the proliferation of parody news websites, always eager to hoodwink the hotheaded.* And if you're going to post an article on social media, for mercy's sake, read the whole thing first.

Finally, when motivated to correspond or comment, stay on topic. Don’t get distracted by side issues, such as debating the proper use of hashtags or acronyms. Just say what you have to say, and back it up with data if necessary. There will be disagreements. Keep your cool. Ask yourself if profanity helps or hurts your argument. (Likely it won’t.) And don’t feel the trolls. Never feed the trolls! They’re only in it for the lulz.

Etiquetteer can think of no better way to close these instructions than by invoking the late Martin Luther King, Jr., who famously included in one of his speeches “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”


Now this is Robert talking.

You may wonder why I feel moved to write on this untraditional topic for an etiquette column. It was prompted in part by a local scandal last spring that a friend told me about: the Boston Pride Committee revocation of its invitation to Anthony Imperioso of the New England Gay Officers Action League because of offensive posts he made on social media. I was impressed by the time, attention, commitment, and passion for those aware of the officer’s comments to bring them to the attention of the committee.

That was at the beginning of April. What has happened since then makes that situation seem a tempest in a teapot. June 6 saw the Stanford Rapist receive a mere six months in prison for brutally raping an unconscious woman behind a dumpster. June 12 saw the tragic killing of 49 people in the Orlando gay nightclub Pulse, the largest mass killing in the United States since 9/11. July 5 saw the horrifying police shooting of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge. And now, July 6, the even more horrifying police shooting of Philando Castile - more horrifying because a four-year-old child was present. All these incidents make even the nightmarish vulgarity of the 2016 presidential election pale in comparison. I am horrified by the killings, angry at the corruption and deception, and despairing at the tone of the national dialogue. How on earth are we going to get anywhere with all this deranged yelling?!

I've followed the Internet commentary, noticing the greater and more frequent calls to take action, politically and socially, to prevent future bloodshed. More people need to get engaged, and more engaged, and more effectively engaged in advocating for what they want our society to be like. Like many, I have no idea yet how I can best be an effective advocate for change. I can’t believe that bullying, threats, and intimidation are the only options available to us. All I have to offer right now is set of guidelines, composed mostly from my reactions to bad behavior, in the news and on the Internet. So let’s get out there and make a positive difference.

*Etiquetteer is particularly contemptuous of those who, on being told that a parody news story about a particular enemy of theirs is untrue, reply “Well, it’s the kind of thing [Insert Name of Enemy Here] would do.” Except [Insert Name of Enemy Here] didn’t actually do it. Let’s not let Hatred blind us to Truth.