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Can we only be activists for causes we can directly relate to?

Can a Christian doing interfaith work really understand the hate faced by Muslims?

Can a well-meaning white person truly understand the struggles faced by minorities?

Can an upper class philanthropist give to those in less fortunate situations truly with dignity?

I volunteer in the cancer center, usually alone. But one day, I went about my work with a fellow volunteer who had been personally affected by cancer. He was able to connect with patients on a deeper level through his own experience with cancer. And as I listened to his conversation, I wondered to myself, can a volunteer not affected by cancer really empathize with cancer patients? My grandma died of cancer, but I was too young to have established an emotional connection.

I then thought about the broader implications of this question. My desire to support cancer patients is just one of the many causes I care about. Mental health, service, relationships, etc. are some others, as one can see from my columns. But why haven’t I written anything on racial issues? Gender? LGBTQ? Accessibility?

In the example of gender issues, I’m not as actively involved as I once was—though I still consider myself a feminist. One of the organizations I’m involved in was planning a brunch for women in science. I had casually asked if I could attend, and I was surprised to find that the answer was no.

Now, there’s a lot of good reasons why guys should be excluded. After all, women can benefit from a discussion without men in which they can have strength to vocalize their vulnerabilities or concerns. My presence may detract from the goals of the event.

Since I am not a woman there was an upper ceiling I could reach with that kind of activism. I could always be an ally and empathize and try to understand the struggles, but always as a well-meaning outsider.

Make no mistake, empathy is extremely useful. It helps validate a struggle, convince people they are not facing something alone, and builds a valuable support network. But for a selfish person like me, I want to feel like I’m effecting some change, doing more than just empathize. What if I’m working on something and there’s a disagreement as to how to proceed? Hopefully both sides can work together, but if emotions get involved, I hear:

“What do you know of my struggle? How can you tell us what to do if you don’t understand? You will always be on the outside looking in.”

I can then apologize and try to empathize, and again, that personal interaction is extremely useful. However, productive conversation stops there.

I know that looking at activism from the perspective of what I can contribute is quite selfish of me. After all, activism should be thought of from the perspective of the disadvantaged population and how to best further their cause. But while the interests of the disadvantaged populations are much more important than that of a well-meaning other, aren’t initiatives most effective when interests of all groups involved align? Allow me to draw an analogy from an energy expenditure campaign:

In an effort to make a host of households more energy efficient, feedback was given on each household’s energy expenditures letting them know daily where they stood relative to the mean. Fortunately, the households just above the average showed a reduction in energy use in an effort to normalize with the average. However, the households already with low expenditures actually increased their consumption. Meanwhile, the households using far above the average showed no change.

Consider an adjustment of creating a special designation “Energy Efficient” and providing a general statement that it was important to save energy. The households already with low expenditures then kept their expenditures low. The most wasteful households were then challenged to move past a point of “irresponsibly inefficient” or at least just do better than they did the day before. This helped them to also improve their energy efficiency.

What if we could create this incentive structure for activism? For those who are already heavily invested, help them refine the nuances of their actions. For the general public, encourage them to reach a certain attainable threshold. And for those who are farthest removed, challenge them to at least not to be offensive or just understand more than they did before. We could create an atmosphere of positive reinforcement for a larger audience, ranging from those who are personally invested to those who may not care at all.

Yes, I know this article is from a perspective full of privilege. But I believe the changes to activism this article proposes will improve overall effectiveness, though they will demand more patience and sacrifice out of the disadvantaged. And just because I addressed some counterarguments, it doesn’t mean they don’t apply.

While I could definitely contribute to other causes that have captured my attention, it is definitely easier to work within the causes I can personally relate to. There seems to be a ceiling that allies can reach, which tends to makes me less invested. Perhaps I can just continue with only columns on mental health, service and relationships.

But I hope that’s not how it has to be.

James Tian is a Trinity senior. His column runs every other Monday.


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