We are All Activists…Whether We Like it or Not
Be prepared, the next sentence may come as a shock to you.
American politics are currently heavily biased and polarized.
Sarcasm aside, this article’s focus is not the obvious, “Grand Canyon” that divides the left and right wings of the American political landscape. Instead, the focus is geared towards one specific way we attack our political opponents, while assuming that we do not participate in the same type of behavior.
There is an important phrase to describe the phenomena that we will explore today, and it is called, “cognitive dissonance”. Simply put, cognitive dissonance is when our actions or ideas are in conflict with other beliefs or viewpoints that we share with an equal amount of passion. For more detail on this term, Webster’s Dictionary defines cognitive dissonance as:
Cognitive Dissonance: (a) psychological conflict resulting from simultaneously held incongruous beliefs and attitudes (as a fondness for smoking and a belief that it is harmful)
The behavior addressed in this article, that highlights the, “psychological conflict”described above, is the political attacks we wage against our idealogical enemies…when we call them “activists”.
Why? What is an activist? Again, let’s look to Webster:
Activist: one who advocates or practices activism : a person who uses or supports strong actions (such as public protests) in support of or opposition to one side of a controversial issue
The political argument taking place, which uses the term “activist” in a negative light, is that there are professions (court judges, educators, government employees) that must remain objective, unbiased, and impartial at all times. To insert one’s own political views into actions associated with this position, would make you an “activist judge” or “activist educator” and that is framed as a violation of the public’s ability to trust these institutions.
The cognitive dissonance taking place, is that these attacks on activism in these professions, are almost always waged by a member of one side of the political spectrum, against the other.
Thus, the implication each side makes in their attack, is that they are on the side that desires unbiased judges, educators, etc. Yet, they are usually the same individuals to advocate for judges and educational policies that support their own political agendas.
To sum up. We are all saying one thing, and then doing the exact opposite. We cannot call out our political opponents for supporting candidates that protect their political views, when we are also trying to succeed with that same goal for our own ideologies.
Is this cognitive dissonance always intentional? To attack one side for doing the same thing that we are doing? I don’t think so.
All human beings have biases (a prejudice or view that we favor). Some are explicit and obvious to ourselves and others (i.e. being a die-hard fan of one sports team and openly disliking their rival), but other biases are implicit (unknown to ourselves but observable to others by our actions).
In this case, individuals may be aware of their biased attack towards political opponents, and choose to ignore modifying their argument. Or, the bias may not be noticed by individuals who are so caught up in their disgust towards the actions of their rivals that they do not see how they also participate in the same behavior.
Harvard University has created an organization known as Project Implicit, that strives to educate us all about our own implicit biases. This is extremely important in general, but even more so as our society attempts to again grapple with its racist past.
An example of an implicit bias in the context of race, is a person that claims they are “not racist”, but has a history of problematic actions, viewpoints, or comments towards people of color. This person may internally believe that they would never be guilty of such actions, and yet they still do them.
I am guilty of this. We all are.
The goal of Project Implicit, and many other organizations, is to educate the public about what implicit biases they have, so that those biases become obvious (or explicit) and can be addressed.
How does this relate to the political attacks or “activist judges and educators”?
Attacking a political rival for being an “activist”, or for having political viewpoints and biases that drive their actions within their career, is literally an attack that can be made towards any human being in society.
We cannot avoid our biases. We can, however, be aware of their presence and adjust how they impact our professions.
As an educator, I personally wage a conflict inside myself, as to the type of teacher I want to be. For decades, there have been arguments waged on this topic, as the public and many educators strive to have political neutrality in their classrooms….and for good reason.
Educators should not indoctrinate their students to be exactly like them, and manipulate them to view the world in the same way. One of the most important skills learned in school is the ability to discuss and deliberate on complicated topics, and you cannot do that if you are being told, unequivocally, what is right and what is wrong.
But can I truly be an unbiased teacher? Can I show both sides of a political debate in my classes from a 100% neutral point of view? Will I be able to completely remove myself from my own explicit and implicit biases?
Do I really want to be neutral on all issues, when some of the issues discussed have created real trauma for my students? Should I hold up a fake reality at the expense of their social and emotional well-being?
Absolutely not. I cannot remain neutral when what my students really need is support from a person of authority that they trust to protect their health and safety.
So should I only teach my own world view? Should I constantly bash the individuals in politics I do not agree with?
Overall, we need to reset the discussion on where politics lies within our daily actions as members of society.
We must stop acting like it is possible for political opponents, allies, as well as ourselves to be capable of pure neutrality.
We also need to quit acting like pure neutrality itself is an ideal worth protecting.
Instead, we must educate ourselves on what our explicit and implicit biases are, and address the biases that are harmful to those around us.
We should always be mindful of how our political views impact our actions in society, and determine when/how it is best to share those parts of ourselves.
I also support those who still want to attempt to remain completely neutral, impartial and objective. Just understand, that doing so is a form of activism itself. We are all activists for the causes we choose to support, be against, or to those we deem ourselves impartial.