Analysis, Activism, and My Experiences with the Two

8 Jul

A couple of weeks ago, Daniel Solomon wrote this in an email to me, “…I see myself as an analyst, an institutionalist, and an advocate; never as an activist, in the sense that my “theory of change” is intra-hegemonic (within the institutions of power), rather than counter-hegemonic. So, I approach my work on mass atrocities through that lens–morally problematic, perhaps, but as I see it, much more effective in achieving what I see as foundational goals. We can go rounds on this, but suffice it to say that when de Waal chides human rights activists for their proximity to power, I disagree, at least partially.”  While Daniel’s thoughts on a theory of change for atrocities prevention deserves its own blog post, these lines did get me thinking about how I identify personally as an activist or an analyst.  This post then is a rumination on that topic.

I first got involved with what can be classified as atrocities prevention in high school (though the phrase probably would have been lost on me then), though I had always been interested in international affairs (which, at an earlier age, was embodied in soccer) and human rights.  I participated in Amnesty International and this experience was important in influencing future decisions, but at that point, my understanding of the issues was minimal.  In college, I got involved in STAND, which ended up being the experience that really drew me into the atrocities prevention field.  I quickly became interested in involving myself further with STAND, but it wasn’t immediately clear in what way.  At first, I conceived of STAND in an activist context, but I never really found a role positioning myself as an activist in the broader anti-genocide movement.

There was a strong activist culture at Swarthmore and I shared a lot of the same values, but I didn’t really fit because I was interested in international rather than domestic issues.  I also didn’t have much experience with or enthusiasm for organizing work (and when I did try, I learned I wasn’t very good at it).  I found myself, for example, more interested in the politics and logic of nonviolent struggle rather than its actual execution.  I thought about starting a conflict minerals campaign at Swarthmore, but soon after that, I saw the David Aronson article that challenged the core tenets of the conflict mineral approach.  I’m not sure if it was solely this incident, but that article was certainly an important moment in making rethink my previous approach to genocide prevention activism which pretty much boiled down to this: learn that people are dying, and look up strategies to help without doing too much organizing, spending more than a few weeks on the project, or leaving Swarthmore’s campus.  This theory of change obviously has its limitations, and so the more I realized that, and the more I got involved in Swarthmore’s intellectual culture, the more I moved away from a purely activist mindset (not a pejorative, but just a descriptive term for lack of a better word).

Though many friends at Swarthmore like myself are interested in working with oppressed communities to help improve lives, international issues, and mass atrocities in particular present a special challenge.  The advocacy entry points are limited by borders, bureaucracy, apathy, language, and money in a way domestic issues aren’t.  Making changes then, simply becomes much harder.  Bec Hamilton’s Fighting for Darfur made me deeply skeptical of the ability of mass movements to affect positive change on atrocity prevention and demonstrates that an intention to do good is not nearly good enough when it comes to genocide and mass atrocities.  The barriers I mentioned mean that more time and expertise is required to influence and create atrocity policy in comparison to domestic policy (though I am no expert on domestic activism so I welcome any challenges to this conclusion).  This realization swept over me gradually, and so I began to change the way I looked at atrocities prevention.  Reading about the issues took up more of my time, and actually engaging academically with current events became important.  And so over time, perceived effectiveness influenced my personal preferences (I have a genuine intellectual interest in studying violence and international politics that goes beyond any specific goal) and vice versa to push me in more analytic direction.

Returning to Daniel’s quote: while I’ve thought a lot about how different approaches to atrocities prevention work influences outcomes, the dichotomy between activism and analysis is not entirely defined.  Personally, I came to atrocities prevention work in an activist mindset influenced by my then-theory of change and other influences, such as my grandfather’s history as a Holocaust survivor.  And while I seriously changed the way in which I think I can create change, my goal, to prevent atrocities, remains the same.  That goal is inherently activist as it seeks to change current societal conditions.  However, changing mass atrocities prevention and response largely involves getting involved with national and international institutions or creating other organizations that can work directly with communities at risk.  To do this, speaking the language of international politics scholarship is a must.  Therefore the methods to reach the goal of preventing atrocities are beyond the scope of what’s traditionally considered activists’ realm.

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One Response to “Analysis, Activism, and My Experiences with the Two”

  1. painspeaks July 9, 2013 at 2:10 am #

    Reblogged this on The Daily Advocate By Painspeaks.

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