Attitudinal Activism:
or how to think like an activist

There are countless ways to act like an activist. You can get out on the streets and demonstrate, write/email/phone/fax  your elected representatives, join an activist group like the Raging Grannies or Peace Action, offer financial support to organizations that support your cause, become an organizer yourself, send out politically-inspired group emails, pound a lawn sign into your yard, put a bumper sticker on your car or paste a sign on your car window (preferably not the front), write a letter to the editor of your newspaper, create a poem or dance or theater piece or painting or song that expresses your viewpoint, encourage discussion with family/friends/coworkers about the issue, call into a radio talk show, wear a pin or hat or sweatshirt or t-shirt that bears your message, and if you live in a warm climate you can even bare your all with a group of like-minded individuals who lie down in the shape of a peace sign or spell the words "No War" or "Peace" with their naked bodies to make their point. These are just a few of the ways that I have seen and/or used to take action for a cause in which I believe. But what brings folks to these actions in the first place?

Most of us, especially those of my generation who grew up in the Father Knows Best 1940s and '50s, were taught from Day One to respect authority. Do what Mommy and Daddy say or you're going to get in trouble. This world view was expanded during our school years to include Teacher, Principal and Textbooks, all of which were seen as authorities on truth, justice, ethics, history and just about everything. Once in a long while a high school student might get lucky and find a teacher who wanted you to think for yourself (thank you, Mr. McBlair), but that was rare. For the most part, getting good grades meant regurgitating what your class notes or textbooks said. College and university often followed this pattern as well. And being part of the work force? Well, what do you think? How kindly would your boss take to your coming up and saying, "Ah, sir/ma'm? I disagree with the way in which you do things here. Let we tell you how to improve the running of this company."?

Is it any wonder that the vast majority of the people, the American people anyway, read the papers (if they do) and listen to the nightly news on TV (much more likely) and say they agree with what is written and/or shown there? Why would they do anything else? They were never taught to be critical thinkers, in fact they were taught not to be critical thinkers. If Teacher says black is white and 2+2=5, Teacher knows best. My job as a student and later, as a citizen, is to learn how to do what they say and not make waves. It's amazing we have any activists in this country!

But more and more people are waking up to their response-ability to 1) examine the information, 2) sift it through the filter of what they already know or can learn through intentional research, 3) ask themselves if it fits together, and 4) if it doesn't, go through it point-by-point to determine what fits and what doesn't. This is called critical analysis. It is a time-honored way of forming your own opinion on things. Not that we learned it in school, or if we did it was often applied exclusively to analyzing literature, not to current events or decisions made by your country's government or the ways in which the media and press are used to formulate public opinion or how systems of power stay in place.

To become an "attitudinal activist" one must apply the techniques of critical analysis to everything one reads, sees and hears, especially in regards to actions/decisions/policy papers/legislation propounded by members of one's government. Or as the bumper sticker says, "Question authority." Questioning authority does not necessarily mean you are going to disagree with it. After bringing your questions to bear on a subject, you can just as easily say, "Yes, this fits with my store of knowledge. I agree." Or you can say, "I agree in part", being clear about which part and why you agree or disagree. Or you might say, "This does not honor truth as I know it and let me tell you why." Whenever one questions authority, one must have clearly in mind the what and why of their argument. Critical analysis is not a tool for the emotional but for clear-thinkers. It is a methodical way of processing information and formulating your own opinion.

So when your detractors call you "impulsive" or "idealistic" or "emotional", always take the time to explain to them your reasoned rationale for action. For, in truth, blind obedience to authority is much more inclined to stem from emotional sources than reasoned resistance. Fear of punishment, wanting to please, self-righteousness, complacency, hero-worship, wanting to be taken care of, playing it safe, needing to see the world as black/white or us/them, comfort with the status quo, or self absorption all play into the hands of authority. It's hard to be an activist if you aren't willing to take a stand that might be criticized. Isn't it strange that those who go along with whatever authority tells them are never asked to justify their position, while those of us who dare to say the emperior has no clothes are held up to ridicule or even attack.

You may wonder how it happens that an unquestioning servant to authority turns her/his former obedience into the kind of critical analysis that leads to action. For each individual the story will be different. For me personally, the journey was long and arduous, partly because of where it began.

I was born in Washington, DC and raised in Northern Virginia. My father was a founder of the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) and the Executive Secretary of the National Security Council under Presidents Truman and Eisenhower. It was his job to set the agendas and write the minutes for the weekly NSC meetings, in addition to briefing the President on matters of "national security." Although not a decision-maker per se, my father had great influence over how things were presented, reported, prioritized and explained to the President. When President Kennedy came to office in 1960, he brought with him his own advisers, essentially stripping the NSC of power. My father moved to the CIA. In his years there, he was Executive Secretary of the United States Intelligence Board, the body that coordinated intelligence efforts domestically and internationally. My summer jobs in high school and college were at the FBI and CIA.

I was raised in a home where secrecy was the norm and transparency nonexistent. My father could never speak of what happened at the office and we never asked. Most of our family friends worked either for the government or the military. Except for McCarthy who had ruined the careers of some of my parents' friends, I never heard any criticism of either institution voiced in my home. Because my father's position was non-partisan, my parents called themselves "Independents" and steered clear of political discussions. Only one person was "allowed" to argue politics with my father and that was Annette Garrett, a former social work professor of my mother's from Smith College School for Social Work where Mom had received her MSW in 1936. Whenever Annette and my Dad had cocktails and discussed politics, my two sisters and I were not allowed in the room. We were very proud of my father.

As you can imagine, my home was hardly a hotbed of critical analysis. What Dad said went, what the President said went and what the Pope said went. Questioning authority was being sassy. It incurred the wrath of the gods so I learned early on not to question anything or anyone. You just accepted as truth/right whatever anyone in authority said or did.

My upbringing formed my political thinking (non-thinking) until I was in my 40s. At that time, a confluence of events began to break down my unquestioning obedience to authority. Art was the tool that initially cracked open my shell. Once I moved beyond painting landscapes and flowers in watercolor--a move that my sisters still regret--the world of self-expression took hold and wouldn't let go. I went back to school--my original degree was the same as my Mom's, an MSW from Smith--and found that making art was like opening Pandora's Box; you didn't know what you'd find there. After two summer stints at a far-out (metaphorically speaking) art camp in western Michigan, I found myself drawing with oil pastels on long rolls of brown butcher paper. The materials weren't as important as what came forth in terms of image. Squished box-like rooms with cactii, ropes, arrows, bridges, small doors streaming light in the distance and often a lone figure crouched, half-hidden, behind a crumbling wall. Things were obviously coming apart and it was up to me to choose whether to walk through that door or remain hidden. I chose the door.

My path wove in and out of a Christian conversion experience that led me to an African-American inner city Detroit parish where I experienced the best and the worst of religion. The best was the people; the worst was a priest who collected women like me. It took me a full four years to get to the other side of my need for another father/authority figure and his need for a malleable mystic/woman, but I made it. Most of his women didn't. But in this community where I was accepted like a member of the family, I learned and saw what life was like for those for whom "status quo" meant poverty and powerlessness. They taught me to fight for justice simply by the fact of who they were.

The Persian Gulf War (massacre) hit me like a ton of bricks. The minute I first saw that bullet's eye video-game image on the nightly news, I burst into tears, ran upstairs to my studio/meditation room and shut the door. I stayed there for three weeks. That was when my good-girl compliance with daddy/authority came crashing down around my ears. Because for me to see our government's abusive, violent and domineering history worldwide meant I had to grapple with the demons of my past. I had to start questioning and stop accepting what daddy/government said was so. And I had to see my beloved father's place in it all. To say this was painful doesn't say the half of it. But from the compost heap of my lost illusions grew an activist, not just someone who marched on the streets--I'd already done that regarding Nicaragua in the late '80s--but an activist from the ground up. An attitudinal activist.

So when I say one has to learn to question authority, I am not saying this lightly. Certainly not everyone will have to make as radical a turning as I, but for most there will be disillusionments and unpleasant realities that will not be easy or comfortable to confront. Like peeling an onion, the layers of truth just keep appearing. But with each layer, innocence drops away and clear sight takes its place. It is worth the tears.

For it is then that whatever action you take will have meaning. Because it comes from deep within, your passion for justice, truth, peace--whatever form your passion takes--will have the potential to create the change you dare to believe can happen. But, if your journey is anything like mine, you will have had to experience that change within yourself first. For me to become the communicator of truth in word, image and song that I believe is my particular "piece of the peace", I must be willing to keep peeling that onion and crying the tears that Truth requires. It's worth every salty step.

©2003 Patricia Lay-Dorsey. Please use with attribution.

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