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A Short Guide to the Ethics and Etiquette of Online Activism

Tom Head outlines the seven deadly sins of activist etiquette.
This chapter is from the book
  • "Tradition is a guide and not a jailer."
  • —W. Somerset Maugham

If you want to see a great exercise in applied moral philosophy, get your hands on a copy of Saul Alinsky's Rules for Radicals. Published in 1971 to help young community organizers do their jobs in a way that actually gets stuff done, rather than in a way that simply makes them feel better about themselves, Alinsky's little book is one of the wisest I've ever read. You'll probably love parts of it and hate parts of it, and that's really kind of the point, but you'll learn from it. And after you've read it once, you'll probably reread it.

I don't want to just paraphrase his second chapter, titled "Of Means and Ends," which deals in general terms with the same sorts of ideas we discuss in this chapter. And I don't want to get way off topic and go into any great detail about the field of moral philosophy or what it means to be an ethical or good person—there are plenty of books about that, most of them useless for our purposes. But I'd like to talk a little bit about a point he makes regarding means and ends because I think it's important to this chapter. He writes:

  • The organizer, the revolutionist, the activist or call him what you will, who is committed to free and open society is in that commitment anchored to a complex of high values...These values include freedom, equality, justice, peace, the right to dissent; the values that were the banners of hope and learning of all revolutions...
  • Means and ends are so qualitatively interrelated that the true question has never been the proverbial one, "Does the End justify the Means?," but always has been "Does this particular end justify this particular means?"

This is important. Alinsky brings up the example of terrorism—fighting a government by taking civilian hostages and blowing stuff (and people) up is always wrong, right? Well, Mahatma Gandhi (see Figure 5.1)—arguably the most effective activist of the twentieth century—thought so. But for the partisans who violently resisted the Nazis during World War II, partisans who would not have been able to do so by less radical means, violence was essential. Or we can look at Abraham Lincoln's pre-abolitionist argument that no state should or may secede against the United States because "a house divided against itself cannot stand." Wouldn't King George have been able to make the same argument prior to the American Revolution? (President Lincoln was in a much stronger position, morally, after he issued the Emancipation Proclamation and made abolition of slavery a clear part of the Union cause.)

Figure 5.1

Figure 5.1 What makes Mahatma Gandhi's philosophy of passive resistance effective in most contexts is not its moral purity, but rather its efficacy. Even Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi's most prominent ideological heir, did not fully support passive resistance until it was proven effective during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Photo: Public domain.

Alinsky recommends looking at your options before you choose a strategy and then going with the options that are (a) least morally objectionable among the available options and (b) most likely to work. In a practical sense, (b) implies (a) anyway. For example, terrorism doesn't usually work—especially in a democracy, where public outrage over terrorism will generally promote a policy agenda contrary to whatever it is the terrorists want. Hawkish leaders in the United States successfully waged two elective wars after the 9/11 attacks, something that would have been unthinkable beforehand, and instituted the most aggressive assassination program in U.S. history against terrorist leaders. All in all, that was a pretty lousy deal for both al-Qaeda and their agenda—even before we bring morality into the picture. Likewise, the violence initiated by certain segments of the anti-abortion movement during the 1990s effectively took the idea of a national abortion ban off the table and may have done so permanently. In a democratic system, being a nut isn't only unnecessary—it's destructive to your cause.

In this chapter, we talk about the seven deadly sins of online activism. There are moral arguments that can probably be made against each of them, but for purposes of this book I'm mostly interested in the fact that in addition to being unethical and rude, these strategies just don't work.

Deadly Sin #1: Self-Promotion at the Expense of the Movement

Every time I write an activism-focused bio, I feel a little bit like Daffy Duck. You might know what I'm talking about: the old Looney Tunes shorts where Daffy fights with Bugs Bunny or Porky Pig to make sure he gets the credit he thinks he deserves. Those cartoons weren't originally made for kids, and the older I get, the more I get the subtext. We're all a little bit like Daffy Duck, some more than others.

The activist world is a lousy way to manifest that tendency. Now, I'm not saying that you can't or shouldn't promote yourself and that you should let other people take credit for your work. And I'm not saying that there can't even be a place in the movement for personalities. Martin Luther King, Jr. did a lot of self-promotion, as did Mohandas Gandhi, as did Cesar Chavez, as did Betty Friedan, and the list goes on and on. We've heard of these people, in most cases, because they did a certain amount of self-promotion. If they worked silently and invisibly and let any random idiot take the credit for what they did, they never would have been able to put themselves in a position where they could steer their movements and accomplish the things they accomplished. So I'm not knocking self-promotion. It has its place.

But that place isn't center stage.

For every Deadly Sin in this chapter, you could mentally insert the phrase "at the Expense of the Movement." So the question with online activism, as with other forms of activism, is: What do you think you're doing? Why are you doing this? Who will this help or hurt? (This question is often asked of PETA, as explained in Figure 5.2.)

Figure 5.2

Figure 5.2 PETA's protests often involve nudity, violent imagery, and other controversial content, as shown in this antifur protest. Although PETA's work unquestionably brings more attention to the organization, whether it does so in a manner that is ultimately beneficial to the cause of animal rights is a frequently debated question. Photo: Copyright 2007 SVTCobra (Wikinews contributor). Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution License 2.5.

For example, if someone goes to the organization's website and sees a great big photo of you and a bio associated with it, what message does that send? Maybe it sends a very good message; the Children's Defense Fund benefits when it highlights Marian Wright Edelman's name because she has so much clout and so much history and is so well-known. And the Muscular Dystrophy Association benefits tremendously, in terms of both branding and popularity, by its association with Jerry Lewis. Charlton Heston did incredible good for the cause of gun rights by promoting himself as president of the National Rifle Association. Nobody could accuse any of these three people of excessive self-promotion because their self-promotion actually worked; it benefited their respective movements.

Does your self-promotion benefit your movement or cause? That's a good question to ask yourself as you design a website, a social networking group, or something else and decide how much of it is going to be about you and other prominent volunteers. It can be helpful to put a human face on things—email updates should always come from a person at an organization, for example, and not from the faceless organization. (More on this in Chapter 8.) And it's good if people can associate an organization with specific personalities. But it's more necessary in activism than it is in most other areas of life to ask: Am I doing this for me (and/or the prestige of my organization), or am I doing this for what I believe in?

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