Hear the word “activist” and the first image that probably comes to mind looks like this: some sweaty, long-haired dude in a black Che Guevara T-shirt, holding a hastily put-together picket sign, screaming in front of a burning effigy. Not necessarily a bad thing, but the fact that this kind of image is the popular stereotype says a lot about how we view the agents of social change. Have we moved on from that caricature, though? Can we say that what it means to be an activist is somehow common knowledge to us?
First off: a few misconceptions. It’s pretty ironic that activists, who dedicate their lives to bringing about social change, get a bad rep and are accused of actually making things worse. If you were an activist, chances are you’d either be saddled with the assumption that you’re supposed to solve everything or be accused of being a senseless noisemaker.
Taj Catangcatang, a student of the University of the Philippines, chairperson of SALiGAN sa CSSP (College of Social Sciences and Philosophy) and the secretary general of the League of Filipino Students (LFS), knows this burden all too well. “Kailangang tandaan na yung mga activist ay hindi sila saviors of the world. Ang role ng aktibista ay makiisa doon sa masa.”
Yau Der, secretary general of SALiGAN sa CSSP, tackles the other side of popular misconception. “Sabi nila, yung mga aktibista raw, puro reklamo, puro rebuttal sa anong ginagawa ng government, tapos wala namang solution. Pero kung nakinig ka sa mga demonstration rallies nila, ang ino-offer namin, solution.”
Finding the right answers, however, can be a complicated task. Because the problems we face now are so varied and nuanced, activism today takes on a slightly different face, different from what it was back when People Power emerged to deliver the masses’ finishing blow to the Marcos regime.
Enrico La Viña, an Atenean graduate and political officer of Simbahang Lingkod ng Bayan, the sociopolitical arm of the Philippine Jesuits, offers his take on how activists now navigate the problems of the world. “When you think of activism, in the martial law days, it (was) very clear what you were an activist for and what you were fighting against, but it seems like activism today doesn’t have a specific enemy anymore,” he says. “Maybe compared to before, in our parents’ age, (they were) fighting against Marcos and American imperialism. Whereas now, there’s gender, there’s environment, there’s religion, there’s all these different kinds of strands of activism.”
While we’d be hard-pressed to say whether activism solely takes the form of mass protests, there’s also this notion that activism can be done from the comfort of our homes, on social media. Eloquently rant about something on Twitter and Facebook, acknowledge that a problem exists, and — bam! — just like that, activism. But social change doesn’t come about by signing an online petition from the comfort of your swivel chair.
Slidey Sims, vice chairperson of LFS, comments, “Facebook clicks cannot change the world. It cannot give land to the farmers. It can disseminate information faster, but the primary struggles are still the same.”
For both Slidey and Rico, real activism doesn’t stop with being merely a keyboard warrior. “Sometimes posting on social media and ranting about things is like screaming into a pillow. You’re loud but you’re muted,” Rico states. “In other words, our political energy is spent on social media instead of it being translated into actually appearing in public spaces.”
Ultimately, being an activist today, as it always has been, means engaging the world intimately. Slidey quotes Lean Alejandro, a notable intellectual and activist who openly criticized the Marcos administration, in explaining how we face that responsibility. “Doon sa mundo ng mga gutom, doon tayo mag-diskusyon.” The sweaty dude in the Che Guevara T-shirt, to his credit, dives right into the middle of the action, rebelling alongside the masses, never claiming to fight for them but instead fighting with them.
And it’s not like protests and marches and demonstrations don’t happen anymore. But where is everybody? Where are the students, the middle class, the privileged?
Some people say that every generation is defined by some sort of crisis. For our parents, it was martial law. And for their parents, it was World War 2 and the Japanese Occupation. It’s tempting to ask what crisis this generation can claim as its own, what earth-shaking conflict should be held responsible for toughening us up, but that’s not it. Being an activist today doesn’t mean waiting for something to happen. It means seeking out the places where we’re needed, the spaces we can properly fill, the broken things that are screaming to be fixed.
Defining what it means to be an agent of social change is always going to be tricky. The world is always finding new ways to mess itself up, and there will never be such a thing as a one-size-fits-all solution. But the main principle of activism, it seems, always stays the same. For Slidey, being an activist, ultimately, means asking the right questions. “Who are you? What do you want? And para kanino? Para sa akin, yun ang bottom line ng activism.” Whether or not we’re close to finding the answers to those questions is, quite frankly, up to us.