The best definition I have ever heard of activism is simply to live your own values. This makes sense because, the commitment underlying the core of any public work is the set of fundamental values held by an organization, a community, and even a movement. However, soon after adopting this definition of activism, problems in both theory and practice arise. For example, no matter which values we claim as our own, we are bound to meet people who cherish the opposite ideals. Compromise, hard decisions, and strategic action are some of the necessary tools to hold on to one’s values, and stay committed to the social mission those values outline.
One of the key difficulties for almost any activist who takes a self-reflexive professional approach to their work is the seemingly intractable dilemma between theory and practice. Perhaps theory is expansive, fascinating and orderly, while practice is messy, complicated, and necessarily unfinished and imperfect. Perhaps practice is useful, gets things done, and actually helps people in their day to day lives. It may even save lives! Theory, then, is aloof, the construction of a castle in the clouds, not down to earth, and practically useless. How can we debate theory when peoples’ lives are at stake?
On closer examination, it becomes apparent that any form of practice contains in it a latent theory. For example, if we wish to save lives, then this is because we adopt a philosophy that states life has inherent worth such that any life is held to be of great importance. We also see that every form of theory actually points towards some time of action. For example, if we declare that life is of the utmost value, then we are implicitly committing ourselves to actions that will support life, and even save lives.
That there is an conceptual relationship between theory and practice is one thing, but that there are varying degrees of this relationship is another. For instance, a philosopher may theorize elaborate ideas of humanity, love, and interconnectedness and donate to the food bank. In this case, there is a heightened sense of theoretical reflection, and a modest form of practical engagement. In other cases, there may be a community organizer who is keen to get as much work done as possible, and, though he/she knows full well the basic theory behind his/her action, is not inclined to learn about the grand theoretical perspectives. This person simply wants to get work done knowing the basic reasons why his/her actions are ethical.
What I want to argue, however, is that there need not be a trade off between theory and practice, though perhaps most of us have a leaning towards one or the other. In fact, I would like to argue that theory enhances practice and practice enhances theory. When a reflective person thinks about their work they notice many systems gaps, work place politics, and other features of the job that can be ameliorated through a change of strategy. Meanwhile, when a person who engages in years of work experience in the field comes to learn how this work is being taught, they are likely to think the textbooks and theories are missing the concrete day to day necessities of the job. This person will likely be able to supplement the textbook in several ways with their work experience.
A Tibetan Buddhist master, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, once said that it is only after one is enlightened that one can begin to make the proper cup of tea. Although, we have not been speaking about spirituality, I think the metaphor of needing to be awakened to do the tiniest job is fitting for this conversation about theory and practice. Specifically, philosophy and theory can help wake a person up intellectually, and without intellectual awareness our daily tasks are not inline with our worldview and our understanding of the problems we wish to solve. It is amazing how a tiny theoretical insight can colour a large domain of our lives. Similarly, the tiniest tasks in our lives are necessary for theory to have any significance. In this sense, drawing on Eastern philosophy once more, theory and practice are akin to the Yin and Yang symbol of Daoism.
In sum, activism is about living your values with self-awareness and following through with action. To the degree we are reflective (and it is a full time job), align ourselves with our values and intellectual commitments, and follow through with action, is the degree to which we are a conscious activist.
As a last point, I would simply care to outline the different between social movements and lifestyle movements. Social movements, such as the gay rights movement, are about making social change, and about changing laws, policies and norms for the whole society, where as lifestyle movements are performed by individuals who adopt certain practices in their live such as going to nude beaches, exercising, and eating healthy. Both are collective action that effects the development of society and both have, at their origins, the living of one’s values as a central principle. Are activists only involved in social movements or can activists be involved in lifestyle movement as well? I leave it up to you.