What is political activism?

This post is an assignment set by a history course I am currently working my way through with Futurelearn, Irish Lives in War and Revolution: Exploring Ireland’s History 1912-1923 — Trinity College Dublin

The question set is, “What amounts to ‘political activism’ in a period of war and revolution?” It should be answered in no more than 300 words.

Political activism can include fighting and protests but these are a means to an end. Wars are fought to try to force those who disagree to comply. War is an extreme form of bullying, undertaken by the many at the behest of the powerful.

In peacetime and in war protests are commonly used to raise awareness. They are a rallying call for the faithful, a recruiting ground for those who may not yet have been galvanised to publicly offer their support to a cause. Those who care about what others think of them will feel good being a part of a popular movement. The excitement of being seen to be at the forefront of potential change can be enticing.

Where political activism starts though is in the home amongst family and friends. This is where discussions occur and ideas are shared. Whether a person is regarded or disdained, their opinion has influence. A wish to be accepted by a group can be a powerful factor.

Political activists do not just include the impressive orators and dogged campaigners, although charismatic leaders are required. What is needed is large numbers of supporters who are willing to stand up and be counted, people with a view who will work to persuade others by whatever means they can.

War and revolution focus attention by creating suffering that all will want to end. As more minor differences are set aside in the quest for peace, activists prey on the masses emotions to ensure that their core beliefs are enshrined.

 

Giving due consideration to an alternative point of view

I am often perplexed as to why my supposedly intelligent friends seem unable to give due consideration to points of view that do not concur with their own. It is not that I expect them to change long held opinions on the strength of a simple exchange, but I do expect them to be able to appreciate why other views are held; to understand the basis of the alternative even if they disagree with the conclusions reached. When a large number of equally intelligent people espouse differing opinions I do not see how each side can be so unwilling to consider the possibility that they may be wrong. Such conceit seems at odds with their otherwise impressive intellectual capacity.

Attempting to engage in debate over an issue can be so frustrating if one side presents their opinions as proven facts and then refuses to consider anything further that is said. They will too often cite what they believe to be expert opinion and declare any similarly qualified experts holding differing views to be inept and their followers deluded. It is as if shouting loudly ‘I am right and you are wrong’ is enough. This is not debate, it is injunction.

When opposing sides in a debate present interesting arguments backed up by real life, practical examples; facts and figures from application; expert, academic opinion formed from historical information; then I am always eager to hear the response from the opposition. To have them turn around and disregard everything said as simply wrong, deluded or not nice with no further explanation is so disappointing. How are those of us watching the debate to be persuaded if no balanced discussion with reasoned exchanges is presented?

When I was younger I used to enjoy watching television programmes featuring courts of law where the prosecution and defence would present facts, argue their case and ask the jury to decide which side was correct. Often the main character would have some surprises to unveil at the optimum moment that would swing the case, but I loved the clever way in which both sides could almost persuade me that they were right (I am told that real courts of law are nothing like this!). To me this was the best way to win an argument; with clever persuasion and attention to factual detail.

I wonder if the art of debate has been lost or if I am simply looking to the wrong people to persuade me. I only know one politician personally but he is very good at arguing his case in a gentle and persuasive way. He could make a point of view that I would consider ridiculous appear reasonable without descending to personal put downs or insults (I admire his skill and am even more wary of politicians for knowing him!). Too many  people try to prove a point by attempting to assassinate the credibility of the dissenters. Making others appear wrong will not make their own views appear right to those who are capable of thought and true consideration of detail.

The fallout from recent events has polarised the opinions of many yet so much of the argument is emotive rather than reasoned. True discussion of cause and effect has been set aside by feelings of hate; debate is being stifled by those who wish to talk but are unwilling to listen. I have never performed well in debates, which is perhaps why I admire this skill in others. I do, however, enjoy listening to clever exchanges and will look out for that previously unconsidered fact that will swing a case. Good debaters will not employ personal insults or attack the character of their opponent; this tactic has been much overused in recent days.

School and university debating clubs offer valuable experience for those who wish to learn how to present an argument and back up their point of view in a reasoned and skilful way. A good debater can present any case and sway an audience; something worth remembering when forming one’s own opinion on a matter. These skills are not being employed by the many who are currently arguing for their political ideology. I am seeing only frustration and personal attacks when dissenters attempt to enter into a discussion between friends who are happily agreeing with one another. These incestuous exchanges only serve to bolster intolerance of dissent; a very unhealthy situation to allow to develop.

Practising a healthy tolerance and according respect to those we disagree with demonstrates an empathy that civilisations should strive for. We do not need to agree with a point of view, but persuasion is more powerful in the long run than force. Leaders require popular support and being righteously assured of one’s own integrity will not generate followers, especially when others present a case more appealing to more, ordinary people.

I sometimes wonder if the inability amongst the intelligent to properly consider an alternative opinion stems from choosing to mix too much with others of their ilk. They may consider that the rest of the population is too stupid to see things as they do but, in a democracy, that matters. If the movers and shakers wish to change things then they require support. Support will not be forthcoming if the best they can do is to shout ‘You are wrong!’.

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Good or evil and why?