There are a lot more than 12 things that any effective activist should know, many of those unlisted here are dependant on what you are doing, where you are, and what exactly you are trying to achieve. These 12 basic tips should be useful to every activist, regardless of their aims or style.
1. There is not just one right way to do things
You’d think everyone knows this, but activists seeking the same goals often fight amongst themselves about tactics. How we aim to achieve common goals is a question of our skills, ethics, location, and the relative effectiveness of these tactics. Any effort is most effective when individuals are all following plans that play to their strengths, instead of all marching in line behind a common, exclusive, tactic.
At the same time, there are more different issues worth struggling for than hours in a day. For a vegan to posture themselves as more important, or ethical, than a general environmentalist or an equal rights activist is missing the point: there is lots of work to be done, and we should all pick the struggles we feel most prepared and motivated to represent. This in no part requires us to devalue or distance ourselves from other movements and narratives.
2. No one should be the leader all the time
Although the existence of an informal or even formal hierarchy is bound to occur, the difference between humans and other animals is the idea of a concrete hierarchy. As opposed to a “leader” making all decisions in every context, it makes more sense to follow a dynamic hierarchy: the most qualified person in any situation is temporarily leading the group in the discussion or the effort. There is no reason that a learned economist should be making decisions about ecosystems, simply because he is “the leader.”
Concrete hierarchies also risk encouraging the leader into a false sense of importance or arrogance, as well as encouraging him to occupy other pieces of the hierarchy with people who are picked based on their alliances instead of their competence.
3. Lead by example: we humans do as we see
This basic fact can be referred to academically as Bandura’s social cognitive learning. It is the empirical basis behind the advice to “be the change you wish to see in the world,” and is probably the most direct method we have available to inspire our fellow humans.
The concept is illustrated well in the following video, which I have shared to death on social media (and which seems to consistently go viral… so you may know it too).
4. Everyone can teach you something: no one is an enemy unless they insist on it
Everyone we meet can teach us something new about the world or ourselves, even if this knowledge must first be distilled through reflection. Even someone who is of a completely different opinion, or with opposing values, can become an ally as long as they are open to listening. The secret is thus not to “be right” as much as it is to talk to your audience: to speak and present information in a way that makes people want to listen and understand.
The only enemy is someone who insists on misunderstanding, insulting, or assaulting you and your cause. In these cases, your ethics, context, and material capacity determine your possible reactions. There is no use arguing with someone who is determined not to listen: it simply wastes psychological energy.
5. The ultimate victory is accomplished without unnecessary destruction
As Sun Tzu explains in his Art of War: the highest form of victory is to defeat your enemy without having to enter into a costly battle. If a city can be taken without having to climb the walls: lives are saved on both sides and precious infrastructure must not be rebuilt. The same is true in regard to our strategic aims: convincing your opponents that your solution is also in their benefit is a far more filling victory than a brutal battle to the last man.
6. When debating: aim for exposing logical fallacies instead of exchanging facts or statements
All too often debates wind up being a back-and-forth exchange of different facts, often dealing with different facets of an issue. This type of debate fails to truly discuss any issue fully, and somehow expects that the side with the “most points” will simply be accepted as being “right.” Unfortunately, this manages to not convey much information or any clarity about the issue, nor does it often bother to discuss the validity of the various facts.
By sticking to one argument at a time, and discussing any included logical fallacies, a common “truth” can start to be established. This forces the validity of individual statements to be established before moving onto any further points and leaves far fewer questions at the end than a simple listing of statements from both sides. Instead of leaving both thinking the other is an idiot, and they won, such a structured argument can lead to more tangible learning.
7. Do not create solid borders: assume formlessness
Do not define yourself, your goals, or your organization as something set in stone. Everything changes, evolves, and reacts: including your plans and understanding. Denying changes or constructive criticism may sometimes feel like a form of defense, but it is actually more likely endangering the effectiveness of your efforts.
8. Always be open for new information and never dismiss an argument outright
Until you have disproven something: don’t assume it is assuredly wrong. Sometimes our “gut feeling” is right, but oftentimes it is simply a reference to what we already think about how the world works. Our resistance to this “threatening” new information is known as cognitive dissonance, and was a far more useful thing in the age before science and the internet.
A good counter argument can help you improve your position for the future, better anticipate reactions and opposition: this learning can only occur if you remain open to actually hearing and investigating these new and supposedly threatening ideas.
9. Being truly informed about whatever you are doing is necessary for doing it responsibly
There is nothing more embarrassing than watching an activist simply fail to understand the issue they are so passionately fighting for. One great example would be GMOs, which are far more complex than most activists (on either side) tend to take into account.
Oftentimes, this lack of knowledge leads to gross generalization and the zealous spread of misinformation. Although the activist set out to do good and promote truth, their lack of knowledge about the issue, or organization/critical thinking when investigating opposing arguments. If you do not know about your topic, you risk spreading false information and discrediting everything else you said when even some of the things you said are found to be misinformation.
10. Almost nobody is ready to see themselves as the “bad guy,” so don’t try to make them assume the role
If you attach a theoretical or ideological position with moral tags like “good” or “bad” then you are inadvertently loading the discussion. Almost everyone, even sex offenders, have rationalized everything they think and do to the point that they still believe themselves to be “good people.” If your argument is that their beliefs or actions make them “bad,” they will simply ignore you. If you concentrate on the consequences, unspoken costs, and implications of the positions instead of relying on moral relativism: they are more inclined to listen and take note.
11. Getting visibly angry rarely helps: try to stay calm and rational
When you yell or get angry: people tend to then react to your attitude instead of your content. As soon as people start yelling or getting very angry, the entire conversation tends to derail onto a more personal and irrational level. Instead of letting yourself get pulled into any angry display, it helps both your argument and your chances of getting through to the other person to stay calm. You are also less noticeable when you refuse to get visibly angry.
Staying calm in the face of irrational anger not only makes you and your points look more grounded, it also makes the other person look ridiculous and their arguments less well thought-through.
12. Wait 3 days after any “battle” before deciding if it was won or lost
This advice also comes from Sun Tzu, and reminds us that our emotions directly after a battle can lead us to misunderstand its context. Whether a situation shows itself as a defeat or a victory is not immediately clear after the fact, and the “war” is not over even if the battle appears to be a victory. This is one part “do not get too cocky,” one part “do not give up: every cloud has a silver lining,” and one part “things are never quite what they seem.”