Joining the Dots: Activism and Social Conscience
Activists have an almost cult-like dedication to the idea of raising consciousness. If people are aware of the world’s problems, the logic seems to go, they will be inspired to do something to help. And then activists bemoan the apathy of the masses when they realise that most people are very well aware of the problems, but aren’t the least bit interested in doing anything to solve them – especially not when hounded by neo-Puritanical activists who criticise their hard-earned pleasures and prophesy fiery end-times.
It is the logic of the abuser and the addict. If we can force people to look at the problems, if we hit them over the head with enough terrifying information, we can force them to care, we can force them to behave as we want them to. Never mind that this tactic on its own has never worked before – if we do more of it, maybe it will work now.
But consciousness is not enough to save the world.
Consciousness is only one part of the process by which people decide to change their lives. We can think of raising consciousness as awakening from a kind of sleep, an awakening to clear vision. But once awake, what is the force that motivates a person to get up, prepare themselves, and go out into the world to do the work that needs to be done? After all, it’s very easy to pull the covers over our heads and wait for the world to change on its own. In a world under siege, it takes enormous courage to get out of our metaphorical beds and face the day. Fear is not enough.
Someplace between waking up and taking action, there is social conscience – the impulse for moral action on a social scale. Where individual conscience inspires charity, social conscience inspires transformation – changing the social structures that cause injustice. It links awareness of a problem with a sense of connection to that problem, not just out of sympathy for suffering, but through an understanding of wider social systems. More importantly, it links a sense of responsibility with a sense of possibility – that things can change for the better, and that one person can make a difference in a clear and tangible way. All these elements combine to motivate thoughtful, sustained action, not out of guilt or fear or self-interest, but out of moral concern and desire to make a difference.
Arguably, any positive changes in behaviour are a good thing, no matter people’s reasons behind them. But meaningful, long-term transformation is almost always preceded by a shift in attitudes and perceptions. A deepening of social conscience is the most important part of that shift – which is why I’ve chosen to dedicate my PhD study to this grossly under-researched phenomenon.
Some people have written about the social conscience, the group conscience, the sense of moral obligation arising from public opinion. I would like to turn this idea on its head. Yes, social conscience can be seen as a collective phenomenon, where the sum total of each individual conscience is democratically joined together, yielding the social conscience, the collective sense of right and wrong. But social conscience can also be seen as a deeply personal phenomenon, where an individual feels a connection to the wider social whole, and a corresponding sense of moral responsibility. In this conception, intellectual understanding forms only one small part of a person’s social conscience – it is mostly a feeling. Consciousness helps direct social conscience, by helping a person understand what the problems are and how they may be solved, but without social conscience, increasing awareness of social problems can lead only to fear and despair.
So what can activists do to engage people’s social conscience, rather than appealing to anger or fear? I’ll write in more depth about this soon, but for now I think the most important thing is to focus on can rather than should or must (or shouldn’t, or mustn’t). The former implies a free choice, empowerment, and hope; the latter are coercive, pessimistic, and evocative of guilt.
It seems obvious, but it’s a point that many activists overlook: people will not make changes in their lives unless they believe it’s worthwhile to do so, with a practical vision in mind, and a strong sense that it’s personally possible (in terms of money, time, skills, contacts, etc). It’s easy to make assumptions about the balance of people’s values, but some choices are simply out of reach for people. If activists can help bring those choices within reach – accepting that people might choose to reject them for any number of reasons – then perhaps fruitful relationships can grow.
It’s about empowerment, relevance, and positive vision. Nobody likes being told what to do – but most people do appreciate hearing about new choices in a changing world. Dogmatic religion, consumer capitalism, and corrupt politicians are very good at offering choices in the best interests of the powerful, but activists have the opportunity to offer something altogether more enduring and enriching. Raising consciousness is only one part of the process of social change – making action relevant and possible are equally important. If we can manage to engage all parts of the process, if we can manage to help people develop and engage a sense of social conscience, then we might just have hope for the future.