Understanding activism shouldn’t be this difficult

By Mumtaz Md Kadir

Concerned Citizens Programme participant Mumtaz takes a deep dive into the definition of the word “activism”, and imagines other possibilities in which activism can be carried out by individuals and organisations. Beyond demonstrative forms of activism like rallies, strikes, or marches, how else can we perform activism—especially in a closely regulated society like Singapore? Share your take on activism (and grievances against the current state of the world) with Mumtaz here.

Google image search results from the word “activism”. Screenshot courtesy of the author.

Today I reflect on the word “activism”.

The past closed-door sharing sessions that we had were with AWARE and Project X. I am humbled by the commitment and dedication that they have in addressing rights of women and sex workers. At one point, the conversation centred around various labels—”pragmatic activism”, “privileged activism”, etc. It made me reflect on the meaning of the word “activism”.

Activism is the act of directly trying to influence social and political change. Many definitions online cite the acts of rallying and protesting as examples of activism. A quick Google image search of the word “activism” conjures up multiple photos of groups of people marching with cardboard signs and fists pumping up in the air.

If these are the images that the word “activism” is associated with, I understand how activism can become self-segregating. It is as if being activist has morphed into a specific identity that centers on particular activities for particular groups of people. It has become a label that excuses everyone else from expressing their opinion for a given cause because “Well, I’m not an activist, or “I am not angry enough to be involved”, or “I don’t have enough energy”. The consequences of this opt-in thinking about activism—a key vehicle for social change—can be profound. It deters self-expression, civic participation, and important conversations.

I have also come to believe that when confronting difficult situations, sometimes hardness is necessary, and at other times, softness is appropriate. Being able to discern when to use which is a task of a lifetime. I have often seen a burning anger at the core of activism, especially in budding activists. Anger can be righteous, and it often is when it stems from people weary of being unheard, misunderstood, or mistreated. But what if what’s needed isn’t slogan-worthy, aggressive, or loud? What if what is needed is forgiveness?

At a corner of Aida Refugee Camp in Palestine, Akram Al-Warah owns a small shop selling Palestinian memorabilia such as jewellery, key chains, and art displays. Some of these pieces were made with metal pieces from tear gas canisters that are frequently found along the streets of the camp. One such creation is a keychain with the word “freedom” engraved on it. Akram opened my eyes to the possibilities of responding to violence with creativity, beauty, and meaning. Akram’s story is one that I will repeatedly share in my social circle, and it is a story that I cannot tell without relating to the oppression faced by the Palestinians. Is Akram’s work considered activism?

I have not come close to understanding the word “activism”, nor do I identify as an activist. But I do care. In fact, I have been criticised for caring too much about social issues that are “distant” from my life. But what is the alternative to “caring too much”? Would it be to opt-out, to be apathetic?

I believe it is important that while we live our comfortable lives, we also think about others in our communities and beyond, of people who are denied a life of dignity, security, and opportunities. When we have a chance to join the fight for hope, I see it as our civic responsibility to do so in our individual capacities—be it small or big, formal or informal, to create beauty or destroy the ugly.

I see the human race as one organism such that when the left hand is cut off, the right hand feels the pain too. I feel the pain when I read about the protests in Hong Kong, the blackout in Kashmir, the threats of war foolishly uttered by world leaders, oppression of the Rohingyas, Uyghurs, and Palestinians, and so much more.

I worry about the imbalance of our ecosystem, and how it causes the displacement of living things and the extinction of species.

I am deeply concerned about the curtailment of freedom of expression, dissenting voices, and alternative narratives.

I find solace when I see creativity despite limitations; love despite hatred; genuine human connections despite politics of division. I find comfort in small acts of love and care, like the sharing of stories that open up hearts and minds.

What about you? What disturbs you in today’s world? What have you not been willing to speak about? What gives you hope? Spill it here.