Why Activism Has Been Given a Bad Name

Natasha Phillips on the power of student activism.

An activist is defined as an individual who campaigns for social or political change, who sees a problem and acts on it to make a difference. This is the type of endeavour we should encourage and support, but many don’t. Activists have a bad image – they strive to vocalise the opinions of the overlooked, but are instead alienating the very people they are fighting for. Many associate the word ‘activist’ with being eccentric, militant, and aggressive – these are all negative adjectives despite the positive ambition of these people. We have come to disassociate ourselves with groups who are actively fighting for causes that we believe in, whilst we sit idly by. It is often the extreme, unorthodox acts of activists that tend to be remembered, rather than the message that they are trying to convey. These people do not want notoriety – they want change.

Lack of support for activism is especially problematic as numbers are often an essential criteria for gaining attention and having their views acknowledged. Stereotypes portrayed in the media are hugely detrimental for the goal of equality. A study conducted by researchers at the University of Toronto has found that people were less likely to adopt pro-feminist behaviours if they read about a ‘typical’ feminist who was more actively engaged in their cause and took part in rallies, than an ‘atypical’ feminist who didn’t fit the stereotypical profile of a feminist, with similar results found for environmentalist groups. This demonstrates the fact that people are more likely to identify with activist groups if they are seen as less abrasive and confrontational, favouring more peaceful methods of protest, but more often than not, being peaceful does not equal being heard.

Whilst the work of activists is not always supported, universities are a great platform for individuals to come together and take a stand. Royal Holloway’s own activist groups include Amnesty International, Feminist Society, LGBT+ Society, Conservation and Animal Volunteer Society, and Sustainability Society and have created a range of campaigns that have made an impact not just on campus but on the wider community. Many are taking steps to engage with students through visibility campaigns which are increasing awareness and support for causes that affect them uniquely.
The deputy of the Feminist Society, Sarah Newall, tells us about how they are engaging with the wider community: “We encourage intersectional feminism within our society and choose to spend our time fighting for the marginalised groups we represent. We also have continued involvement with the SU Welfare and Diversity team, which means we encourage broad, varied, and new approaches to feminism all the time”. Whilst their website lists smashing the patriarchy as its number 1 objective, they also strive to combat negative impressions by “trying to promote positive new ways of discussing and learning about feminism”. The Feminist Society’s #UglyGirlsClub campaign was covered by multiple major news websites and gained a considerable social media following. Actions like these show just how much impact smaller groups can have, and give us hope that as the face of activism changes, so too does its perception from the outside.