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Opinion: The trouble with activism

'Like with most ultimatums, chances are you will not like the answer'

Are you a liberal or a conservative, a Democrat or a Republican, an environmentalist or an industrialist? Do you support Israel or Palestine, Ukraine or Russia, China or Taiwan? What’s your stance on DEI, what about SOGI? What’s your take on abortion, voters’ rights, immigrant rights?

Every hour of every day there’s a cause in front of us trying to get our attention. Over the holiday period I stayed with friends in Downtown Vancouver, and every day there were marches down Georgia Street, blocking traffic and waving various flags (guess which) and being dutifully followed by the VPD. At other times of the year, if you walk by the Convention Centre at the right time, someone will show you pictures of aborted fetuses and demand to know what you plan to do about it. In my home city, there was always a preacher on a milk crate out front of the giant Anglican Cathedral citing chapter and verse of all the reasons everyone was going to Hell—it was usually to do with sodomy.

In each case, all of these passionate people were asking passersby why they didn’t care, why they were ignoring the issues they held dear, why they were letting the world burn and children be tortured and the future of our species wither and die.

For the purpose of this piece, I do not have an opinion on any of these matters, but I do find the tactics to be aggressive and counter-productive in that they are more likely to turn passersby into opponents than allies.

What I think every time I see them is something like: I am not letting any of those things happen. I am going to work, because I need to earn money and pay for my too-expensive house and buy food that I need to live, to stay ahead of all the bills and taxes coming my way, and to hold down a quality of life that is worth living for.

I don’t even have any kids—not even a pet—and I’m flat out. It makes me wonder how anybody else has the energy to take on a fight and pursue it with the energy of a new job.

When activists direct their energy into putting themselves in the way of my life on issues they aren’t doing a good job of explaining, like many, I am more likely to respond with annoyance than compassion.

This will no doubt offend, but I’m starting to suspect all those protestors everywhere demanding undivided attention are completely forgetting they are not the centre of other peoples’ lives, and the cause they are fighting for is not as all-encompassing as they believe.

Look up the term “sonder.” In short, it refers to the understanding that everyone on planet Earth is the centre of their own world. I understand it as the appreciation every person is the main character of their own story, and there are no supporting roles.

Applying it to protesters who try to stand in peoples’ way, or block roads in and out of anywhere taken by commuters just going about their day, it is as though they do not believe the lives they are impacting are worth anything, despite often claiming to be compassionate and considerate of the world’s ills.

Every single person you ever encounter is wrapped up in their own lives and their own problems, and if another person—even for a second—assumes others do not care about their cause because of malice, or accuse them of being in opposition simply because they haven’t taken time out of their day to join them, then they have a serious entitlement problem.

People are not heartless, but there is not enough emotional energy in the world for everyone to take on every problem in the Universe.

Most emotional energy is directed inwards, anyway. Anyone seeking to break through someone’s shell and attempt to convince them of a cause is imposing upon hopes, dreams, problems, anguish, heartbreak, and importantly—deeply held political beliefs that, for the most part, are kept close to the vest.

That’s dangerous territory, but it seems as though the activists that clutter city streets don’t understand that, and the people that walk by them are just blank slates to draw on.

I am absolutely certain those same people will accuse me of missing the point of their actions, and I agree—I am intentionally sidestepping the point of protest, much like they sidestep the point of society in that it only works when individuals don’t insert themselves into choke-points to clog up the entire system just because they can.

Those activists should be ready for the potential that the people they are trying to convince (often rather forcefully) will come down on the opposing side of their issue simply because they have been engaged on the issue.

Forcing someone to take a stand and pick a side on every problem on Earth is just making an ultimatum, and like with most ultimatums, chances are you will not like the answer.