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Globe and Mail columnist Tabatha Southey.

Globe and Mail columnist Tabatha Southey.


Might I demand that we stop agitating against activism? Add to ...

Almost every day these past few months, I’ve walked past an advertisement on a bus shelter. The ad consists of a huge, tight shot of a woman’s face, and she looks so alarmingly tense and grim, I’m rather surprised the streetcar still stops there.

The woman’s pleading, yet menacing, eyes watch me come toward her from a block away. For the longest time, her face made me only vaguely aware that some kind of stigma needed to be ended.

The ad even has the “end stigma” font; “this-is-not-comic sans” or something, but what the typography actually says is: “I am not an activist.”

Eventually, I looked unhappy-bus-stop-woman up, and found she also appears in a radio ad that gives us much more information about this “not an activist.” In an urgent tone, she tells the listener that she works part-time, and, here her voice softens ever so slightly, is “married full-time.”

Both facts seem to be offered as evidence of her reasonableness. Nothing so excessive as 40 hours a week for this good woman, who is not an activist, heaven forbid.

“I am a 48-year-old mother of two …” she says, and, word of advice, almost anytime someone begins a sentence that way, there’s a good chance that someone is about to start yelling at you.

As sentences go, it’s like “Who the hell taught you to drive?” Those are words never followed by “Because you are so amazing at driving and I’d very much like to take lessons with whomever instructed you, so that I, too, can drive so well, incredibly gifted and attractive driver that you are.”

I hear someone say, “I am a 48-year-old mother of two,” I get my purse and start slowly backing out of the room.

As it happens, this woman (she’s not an activist, as she makes clear; she’s just someone you don’t want to be stuck with in a parent-teacher conference) keeps it together for the ad’s duration.

Yet one senses from her tone that, if the spot had been allowed to go longer than 30 seconds, our moderately employed, temperately fecund heroine would have gone all Al Pacino in ... And Justice for All.

Instead, 100-per-cent non-activist mother-of-two only has time to say, “I’m the health-care quarterback for our family,” and explain that she’s worried that, if there are changes to Ontario’s health-care budget, her quarterback role will become more arduous. Accessing health care will become more difficult for everyone, we are to understand, even those not in desperate need of a treatment for a severely strained sports metaphor.

“I have never protested a day in my life,” quarterback-matriarch tells listeners, and then she urges us to “get active” and go to a website that the Ontario Medical Association has at the ready.

Well, no, I won’t do that. Not when you make it sound so dirty.

Touting the fact that you’re not an activist as your greatest qualification for trumpeting a cause isn’t likely to bring me round to your mission.

I listen to that ad and all I can think is, “Oh, hey, lady, so you sat out the AIDS crisis in the eighties? Well, that’s a shame. I bet those activists, some of the many throughout history who have fought valiantly to make people’s lives better (or at least continue), could’ve taught you a thing or two about grappling with a health-care system.”

If your pitch is basically, “Look, I never dashed off a letter to Nestlé about infant formula when that was a thing, or cared much about people in wheelchairs accessing a bathroom, so hear me out now,” I likely won’t.

Since when did never having been so passionate about something that you felt the need to speak out about it become an express ticket to the moral high ground?

The Ontario Medical Association, or more specifically its advertising agency, isn’t breaking ground here. They’re following a trend, and they’re likely not helping themselves.

You want people to e-mail their MPs, sign a petition, maybe eventually stand on the street with signs they made on their lunch hours and chant something they too likely know doesn’t even scan, in the hope of bringing about change – you want activists.

So, maybe stop saying “activists” like you are saying “raccoons in the attic.”

Since when did the word become a pejorative?

And I bet a lot of you are about to e-mail me an answer, citing some specific cause that you perceived as being so ludicrous, so jaw-droppingly out of touch with reality, such a non-injustice, that it killed the whole concept of activism for you forever.

Well, I’ve got three words for you: “men’s rights activists.” You don’t see me throwing up my arms and crying, “Screw the whales.”

In part, the rejection of activism as a concept stems from a belief that a sufficient amount of change has already been made. It has to stop. We’ve literally done enough as a society – not-society can stop asking for stuff now.

It’s a way of thinking that emerges when people frame the righting of great historic wrongs (letting the other half of the population vote, not literally owning people) as concessions that one group has personally made, as largesse bestowed in some sort of ongoing negotiation for which there must be quid pro quo.

That’s just not how this better-society thing works, people. Yes, it’s not illegal to be gay any more. That doesn’t mean straight people get to demand more seasons of Everyone Loves Raymond and free Dockers when next everyone’s back at the bargaining table.

The constant disparaging of activism – the casual acceptance of the idea that the more dedicated a person is to a subject, the less they are worth listening to on that subject – has been fashionable for a while now.

The plethora of “Taxpayers for …” and “Concerned Citizens Against …” groups is a reaction to that trend. These people are “concerned,” about an issue, you see, having apparently rejected “Peeved” and “Indignant” as descriptors. We are to understand that while, yes, these groups are campaigning to bring about political or societal change through vigorous action, the difference is they’re right.

All of this is how we come to the less-than-clarion call to arms, “I am not an activist.”

Well, lady, take out another bus shelter, when you’re ready to say you are.

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Follow on Twitter: @TabathaSouthey

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