There's a natural tendency amongst organizers and activists to rank order the issues they care about. What you're working on often becomes the Most Important Issue in the World and when other activists suggest their issue is more important, fights break out. At its worst, this sort of territorial attitudes of issue priorities lead to groups of similar ideological standpoints being wedged into positions of opposition to each other, either through unintentional disregard for each other or strategic divisions by others.
What is often ignored in the moments of inter-movement tensions is that every issue is real and important because they impact people and people care about them. If you've glossed right over that last sentence as fluff, I urge you to go back and think more deeply on what it means.
One of the defining things in human existence is our ability to care about projects. It's what carries us from today to tomorrow, adding meaning and purpose to our lives. That people dedicate themselves to efforts to improve the quality of human life or the health of the planet is a defining fact of activism. What makes activism noble isn't just the implied selflessness, but that activists across movements are fighting to make the brief time we have on this planet better for other people.
Recognizing how much needs fixing and what is at stake if we fail is terrifying. It means, quite literally, pain, suffering, injustice and death. It means gay teens facing bullying. It means migrant families being torn apart. It means wars continuing to tear apart countries and communities. It means workers having their wages stolen by their bosses and their homes stolen by their banks. It means poisoning our planet unto the point of being uninhabitable. The consequences of failure to make progress on the issues we care about resists our comprehension, for fear of their scale.
The stakes are high. And we ignore them. Not just because it is in our nature to avoid them, but because confronting them directly forces us to see how important the work we - and our activist peers - do really is. Generally speaking, that creates a tendency to diminish the relative importance we assign to people working on other issues.
Be honest - we're all guilty of it. I've worked on issues from Tibetan independence to workers' rights on the job to fighting against foreclosure and eviction to, now, pushing for clean energy solutions to climate change. Every step of the way, if I'm truthful, I can think of issues whose proponents annoyed me by their doggedness on something that I didn't think was worth my personal time. I've actively complained about the inefficacy of money-in-politics activists and the strategic choices of environmentalists. We all have the issues which we frankly don't think are as important as whatever it is we are devoting our life towards solving.
Yet there is something incredibly self-defeating about privileging our work on specific issues over others.
On a strategic level, a thoughtful analysis of the various issues that dominate activist energy shows that there is a common thread of villains across movements: financial elites, big multi-national corporations, and the politicians which serve their interests. There is a great deal that could bind labor, environmentalists, immigrant rights' activists, housing activists, students, and those fighting for sane drug laws.
But going beyond this, when we fail to realize the beauty of people like us fighting to make the lives of others better, we fundamentally diminish the humanism of our work. We miss the opportunity to be inspired by our peers in other movements, to learn from them and their passion.
This isn't just about our behaviors as individual organizers. It's also about what the opponents of change do to divide us from each other. Pitting movements against each - green versus blue, brown versus pink - doesn't serve anyone but those who would see each of us fail individually.
A recent example of this came from FWD.us, a corporate lobbying group formed by Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and other technology company luminaries. The group ostensibly came together to push for comprehensive immigration reform, but their early forays into this involved putting ads on air in swing senators' states that promoted the highly controversial and destructive Keystone XL pipeline and opening up the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge for drilling. FWD.us's strategy was deliberate and brazenly transactional - to get and keep the support of Senators like Mark Begich and Lindsey Graham on immigration reform, FWD.us would give them plaudits on other issues which were important to these senators. FWD.us was deliberately taking steps to pit environmentalists and immigration activists against each other, based on their presumed internalizations of what issues each community think are most important today. This is what I find to be so offensive about FWD.us's cynicism. It plays our natural selfishness against our need to have solidarity across movements.
Fortunately some in both movements rejected this dispicable ploy, as we saw the Latino civil rights group Presente.org and the Sierra Club come together in opposition to these ads (other progressive groups like MoveOn, the League of Conservation Voters, and Progressives United have done the same).
Though I've had the opportunity to work alongside Presente.org many times, I don't know what went into this decision. But it is admirable and brave to look at a heavily-monied lobbying group standing up in support of one of your core organizational goals and effectively saying, "This is not right. This is not how we want to win."
The message sent by Presente.org is clear - they will not order rank the importance of their movement against their friends' movements, movements whose values they share. And the lesson we must learn as individual campaigners is clear. We will support each other. We will say yes to each others' projects and causes. We will value each others' work, even if it is not our own. We won't let ourselves level down our peers' projects and the care they invest into them.
This is a message of solidarity. It is a message of humanity. It is a statement that values the high stakes in all of our movements and the real, human consequences for failure in any of them. It is a testament to how hard it is to be called to work on life or death issues day in and day out.
Without solidarity, it's hard to see any progressive movement gaining traction and achieving victory in our times. But if people stand together - as activists, as organizations and as movements - what we can achieve is truly incredible. We can confront the ills of the world and we can win together.