What do you call activism without personal sacrifice?

Posted on

Last week a lady emailed me saying that she wanted my help in fundraising to build a community center in Nicaragua, and she wanted to start now. “I know you were able to build a school in Malawi; how did you even begin that process?” she asked me, eager to get started.

I had to explain to her that I lived in Malawi for 2 and a half years before I even began planning that project. I spent 2 and a half years living with the Malawian people, building relationships on the ground, and learning what was needed and what wasn’t. Eventually, after months of planning and months of fundraising, we built a fully sustainable girls school with 120 students in partnership with a network of rural villages. And this coming year, we’re expanding to 360 students. And the process has been challenging and time consuming. It would have never happened without a methodical approach.

The point is, changing the world for the better takes time. It never happens right now and it never happens easily. And those who think otherwise need a reality check.

What’s the difference between an activist and a faketivist?

True activism, the kind that people benefit from, requires one thing that’s hardly talked about by modern day faketivists: personal sacrifice.

The word activism has been compromised by some of the least active people in human history. If you spend your time composing think-pieces and tweets in an air-conditioned room, with the only exception being the occasional protest on your day off from work, then your “activism” has likely resulted in zero positive change.

“Activism,” without personal sacrifice, can’t produce change because it’s a call solely for others to change their behavior. And when a hypocritical leader asks the crowd to do what he won’t, the crowd is left uninspired.

As an example, let’s look at two different movements: Occupy Wall Street and the Civil Rights Movement.

Occupy Wall Street was a call for others to change their behavior. It was the demand that those with money should stop being so greedy. And it had no staying power because the members of that movement weren’t advocating for personal change, they were advocating solely for personal gain. And many were left uninspired, knowing that if the situation were reversed, nothing would be different. In other words, if it were the protesters that happened to have the money instead of the capitalists, then they would have kept their money just the same.

On the other hand, the Civil Rights Movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. has been one of the most successful social movements in modern history. Martin Luther King had a dream that people would be judged by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin and he was the first to embody that sentiment. Even though he was treated poorly by some white people, he didn’t judge all white people accordingly. He, instead, judged people exactly how he asked others to judge them. And, as is often the case, he paid the ultimate sacrifice for his activism.

But while many today cite Dr. King as an inspiration for their so-called activism, few follow his example. What does it cost the protestor to join his peers for a few hours in a cathartic ritual of mob disapproval? More often than not, the answer is nothing.

Modern day protesters don’t exemplify this spirit of personal sacrifice. Instead, they demand the personal sacrifice of others. And they demand that sacrifice now. No time or patience for questions.

Why is personal sacrifice necessary for social progress?

When personal sacrifice is not present, social progress is not made. Those who have ever made a purchase understand this.

If you walk into a McDonald’s and hand the cashier some money, they will serve you a hamburger. But if you attempt the same transaction, but ask for the hamburger for free, nothing happens (besides noise).

Even for products that are supposedly free, like Facebook, a tradeoff is still being made. In exchange for using the Facebook platform, users exchange some of their privacy. Or, in exchange for using the free version of Spotify, users consent to listen to ads.

So, just like you can’t use Facebook without giving up your privacy and you can’t get a hamburger without handing over money, you also can’t affect social good without offering up personal sacrifice.

If you want to find the people who are making a positive impact in the world, as opposed to a fake one, look for those who understand this concept.

There’s a reason the Peace Corps has a hard time showing tangible evidence that they are making a lasting impact in the communities that they supposedly serve. Many of their volunteers (not all) are going overseas for personal gain. They are looking for either an adventure or a way to pad their resume, and not a way to serve the marginalized. And their 30% dropout rate would indicate that it doesn’t take long for these activists to recognize the true cost of social progress.

On the other hand, there are servants who understand the transactional nature of genuine activism. There are those who, like Mother Teresa, forsake their own comfortable life in order to lift up the lives of others.

These are the true activists. They are heros. And they are so focused on their cause that they have no time to demand that others change their behavior.

True Activism

Banks train their employees to spot counterfeit money by having them spend ample time with real money. It is only by the meticulous study of the truth that one becomes trained to spot the frauds. And so it is with distinguishing the true activists from the fake ones.

You can’t begin to understand what it takes to actually change the world until you’ve spent time with people who’ve truly sacrificed for their cause. The world isn’t changed by the picket signs of an entitled mob. It’s changed by the daily and often ungratifying work of those who put their heads down for a little bit of progress that they believe in.

But why would someone work so hard in order to serve others? It’s a bewildering question because the answer isn’t obvious. What is obvious is that these people are so remarkable that it’s an insult to put them in the same category as these modern day faketivists.

Faketivism is more sinister than a mere pastime for hipster Millennials. It mocks and undermines those who do actual work. And while it’s often done with good intentions, those who allow it to continue are diluting the cause of the many good actors out there.

The faketevist who has been deceived into thinking that the world can be changed with little effort is desperately in need of better counsel. The sooner that they realize that their efforts are counterproductive, the sooner they can attend to actual work. And the sooner they attend to actual work, the sooner they will stop being an undermining distraction from true activism.

Many good things are happening in the world. And those things are deserving of a platform. A platform awarded to sacrifice, and not to noise.