I’m going to make a generalization here…

This is an interesting article that rings true. Activism leads to negative stereotypes. You know the ones. Environmentalists are liberal tree-hugging hippies. Feminists are braless man-haters. Skeptics are curmudgeonly know-it alls. We have to change this. I consider myself an environmentalist, a feminist and a skeptic and I do not fit those stereotypes at all.

What’s Stopping More of Us From Being Environmentalists and Feminists?.

Researchers who looked at the studies regarding perception of activists say this:

“Unfortunately,” they write, “the very nature of activism leads to negative stereotyping. By aggressively promoting change and advocating unconventional practices, activists become associated with hostile militancy and unconventionality or eccentricity.”

“Furthermore, this tendency to associate activists with negative stereotypes and perceive them as people with whom it would be unpleasant to affiliate reduces individuals’ motivation to adopt the pro-change behaviors that activists advocate.”

So the message to advocates is clear: Avoid rhetoric or actions that reinforce the stereotype of the angry activist. Realize that if people find you off-putting, they’re not going to listen to your message. As Bashir and her colleagues note, potential converts to your cause “may be more receptive to advocates who defy stereotypes by coming across as pleasant and approachable.”

I’ve tried to put out the message, by example, that I’m not a stereotype. Unfortunately, there is a truth that the majority of participants in these activities may cluster around certain demographics, beliefs and behaviors. But it does not mean that is what a cause is all about.

Honestly, I’m conflicted by this because generalizations are… generally true. Stereotypes are exaggerations of this generalization. I suppose the best course of action, as they imply, is to be cognizant of your behaviors that may be off-putting and try to make changes. I have, though it’s not easy. It means looking at the issue from the perspective of those that may not hold similar worldviews. Activism starts small, just being able to get people to listen and dialogue with you so you can exchange information. Because of stereotypical reactions, the door often stays closed.


Thinking about this…


7 thoughts on “I’m going to make a generalization here…

  1. A lot of times, joining these movements gives the person a bit if new found power, and that can get activists going on the wrong foot. See it with new vegans all the time.

  2. I was thinking of this also. I’ve had enough run ins with the more extreme environmentalists in vermont, that I have a sadly negative view of any Vermont activist. (I’m going to write about the run in later, I drive a mini cooper, but someone thought a large gas guzzling truck was mine!). I also remember being asked at TAM2 what group I was with, as we were having so much fun and laughing, we had taken over a bar. When I explained we were the skeptics, people were shocked. We were having fun and laughing.

  3. The same holds true for advocates of the reality of UFOs, paranormal entities & events, etc… The stereotypes are even more extreme, and also often true, and it’s that much harder to present ones self as reasonable and open to consider different opinions.

  4. Negative stereotypes are created by those in opposition to one’s position. They take everyone with the opposite take on things and paint them all as if they’re the most extreme versions that are really a minority. As the member of an interest group that’s often painted broadly and unfairly (actually, now that I think of it, several groups), I know that all I can do is follow a reasonable and fact-driven path to wherever it takes me. I can’t control how others want to paint me but I can control how I conduct myself and with whom I choose to associate.

  5. I don’t necessarily think it is even taking the most extreme and painting with a broad brush by opponents. Public actions and now twitter “activism” can be fairly high profile.

    But at the same time, I think it is problematic to criticize activists too much. My middle-classy inherent reaction is indeed to have the “moderation works” impulse.

    But then I think of stuff like Creationism. I don’t brook compromise on that. I’m not marching in the streets about it, because that isn’t appropriate. But I would be considered unyielding, extreme, etc., by most Americans (as polls show, even most Americans who accept evolution also insert some kind of supernatural element) on that. And as of the moment, this is not an issue that threatens me in legal or violent ways, one that creates real tangible problems in my life, unlike some of the issues above.

    I think there are lessons that could be learned from that research, or just the life experience that agrees with it. But I also don’t feel comfortable telling others how to act if I’m not part of that activist movement. It’s complicated.

  6. Well it’s confirmation bias really, isn’t it? I mean if you’ve had a bad experience with an activist before (and many people have) everytime you have another experience with an activist you’re going to be looking for and remembering the same behaviors. In practice that means that we all have to pull the pendulum in the opposite direction by not exhibiting those behaviors and trying to change people’s perceptions of what an activist is and does. “Don’t be a Dick” was more than just a slogan, it was a prescription for changing the way the world looks at skeptics, atheists, feminists, etc.

    Unfortunately there are good reasons for activists to be enthusiastic (read: angry) about the things they are trying to change. People are offended by being told that their anger, while justified, isn’t appropriate to show in certain situations. So, here we are.

  7. Amber, I think that strategy can’t win most of the time, because of generational reset. Never mind that you’ll have some people who will not change and they will become lightning rods in a community. But with each generation, the wheel gets mostly re-invented, it seems. And if the community is not institutional, it will often be those old lightning rods guiding the re-invention under the guise of “reform,” which usually has copious amounts of settling old scores. This is probably generally true (and I’m not just thinking activism here, but all sorts of communities based on practice and ideas), and in activism specifically youth has been valued since the 1960s because of the timing of baby boomer demographics with other historical streams.

    You can have all the measured approaches, all the lessons learned you want, but a cynical demagogue can just root it all right up if they get enough ears amongst those who don’t know that most of the same issues were battled out in the previous generation. If there is an institutional memory, this is a weaker phenomenon. But in a decentralized community of the self-appointed, it’s strong. To take this to communities the Doubtful brand covers more often, this is the phenomenon you see in subcultures like ufology or cryptozoology, where the same old cases that have been explained for decades are revived by an author or producer because it suits them, and then they become the new hotness all over again (that ufologists are still talking about Mantell or Aztec, never mind Roswell, is astonishing if you don’t understand this phenomenon).

    While it is easier to point out in paranormal communities, you can see it in others. Go look in the letter columns of the Skeptical Inquirer, the same arguments over tone, over whether organized religion or politics should be topics, and so on, are right there decades ago. They get different names (everyone remember Brights), and some of the details and intersections with other issues change. But the same dynamics are there because at the end of the day if there is not a full-time professional backbone to provide something of a paradigm and an institutional memory.

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