A Few Thoughts on JAM: Activism, Pluralism, Dialogue [and whether we can still have fun]

Whether it's because our opponent hails from another political party, or voted differently on a key referendum, or thinks about...social values — or whatever — in a way we struggle to comprehend, our collective habit of shouting at each other with fingers stuffed in our ears has reached a breaking point. It's time to bring [a bit of] ambivalence back… This raises a delicate question: Who gets to decide if you're the "right kind" of [activist]....? Similarly, who gets to decide if you're an ally on some issue or really just a bigot in disguise? (Earp, 2016, pgs. 1, 5)

By Anna Westin

Be it about bodies and spirits, or ideals and practical realities, the challenge of embodying different ideals has repeatedly reared its head through time. And now it seems, it could be a key challenge to contemporary activism. “Hey, I’m a good idea. But not sure what I look like in real life…” Or “ ‘Oh, hey, I’m another good idea, but I am definitely not going to agree with your idea!” There’s a two-fold thing going on here, I think: The first is getting our ideas to really look like something in reality (measured impact, for lingo’s sake). The second is, keeping the conversation going when our ways of doing this don’t match others (effective dialogue, our second term). Passionate people who have big ideas… and often don’t agree. Arguably, activism’s kryptonite.

I easily hope and quite easily get disappointed when things don’t go to plan, which I think can be a bit of a personality metaphor for today’s activism.  We have big hopes, and they are often disappointed. Protest movements, effective in the past have been recently questioned in terms of maintaining a unified line of thinking (what are we all representing?) and concrete change. Action plans and rhetoric have made ideas bigger than felt realities.  And the hostility towards the great evil of ambiguity— honestly not knowing our opinions [or, not good, changing our opinions!], because, well, we don’t know everything.  How can we engage with progressive activism, while remaining joyful, in dialogue, and actually producing change?

Maybe that’s why I like the idea of a Network— because it starts from the desire to change things and the honesty that I really don’t have what it takes to accomplish it alone.  That there are different people out there who want this same impact, and who I might not really ‘get’ at first, but that we can work together (Go to the sociologists and psychologists to look at in-group, out-group research. It’s fascinating.).  That some people are great with numbers, others have abilities to paint and sing, some are researching this stuff theoretically and others are seeing it unfold first-hand.  That there is no segregation of disciplines and methods that are ‘better than’ or more ‘prestigious than’, but that different things work for different scenarios, environments, and people.  Maintaining the richness of the plurality within the unified purpose of a shared, growing effective dialogue (something my supervisor taught me about the ancient Socratic way of conversation).

So, who is the ‘right kind’ of activist when it comes to human trafficking and modern slavery?  Who is the ideal JAM Network-er? Anyone whose goal is its eradication.  How are we going to do it? By focusing on creating measured impact through cultural and communal engagement and developing effective dialogue. Will I agree on the particularities all the time? Not always. Will I have different opinions sometimes? Probably.  Are there times when I will just have no sweet clue? Most definitely.  But that is where the unity of the Network is key— in keeping the conversation going in its various outworking (blogs, music, papers, business proposals).  

It’s a bit existential perhaps. A bit of deBeauvoir’s ‘becoming a’ something, if you like philosophy… But since the goal is in focus, I think it permits the development of something uniquely exciting— to joyfully celebrate and encourage what is already happening, and to push for change in innovative new ways that we hope to see affect the real lives on whose behalf we speak.  Of course, maintaining the unity will be hard— because we are talking about things that matter and affect people concretely, be they stigma, exploitation, rights, etc. But if we keep the honest vision clear, and the humility of continuing to ask and learn with the stubbornness of seeing change happen, I think it’s a good first step.

Such an exciting (and FUN!) thing to be a part of! Thanks for joining in the conversation.

Anna Westin (St. Mary's University Twickenham) is a visiting lecturer, Pilates instructor, and musician.  She is currently working on a PhD in the existential phenomenology of addiction, and has research interests in environmental sustainability, international development, political philosophy, existentialism, phenomenology, personal identity and bioethics.  Anna has previously published articles on human rights and ethics. You can find her at: anna-music.org or jamnetworklondon@gmail.com.