Sunday, June 8, 2008

What does it take to get people to act?

I sometimes think it's a shame that most Canadians didn't experience a world war. Not that I want one now - it's just that most of us don't know real hardship. We have never had to ration goods, see a spouse or family member off at the airport with the likelihood that they may return in a coffin, or consider the loss of our freedom. Every single one of us is aware of political problems, social problems, and catastrophes which involve other parts of the world, and some which directly affect us. What do we do about problems? We talk about them. Sometimes we donate money. But for most of us, it ends there. Is that enough?

Tom grew up in New Jersey; his partner, Emilio, left Venezuela to escape discrimination and persecution. In Canada, Tom would have been able to sponsor Emilio, so that immigration would not have been an issue. But because same-sex partnerships are not federally recognized in the US, Emilio was instead under threat of deportation. They took part in a documentary to raise awareness of the plight of bi-national same-sex couples in the US.

Tom recently recounted to me his frustration with people's reactions to the film. Viewers were, of course, sympathetic, and many wanted to offer money. But of course, this particular issue is not a financial one; the problem lies with the ultra-conservative atmosphere which envelopes the US at the moment (the Bush administration, right-wing religious fundamentalism, anti-immigration and anti-gay bigotry). Tom and Emilio don't need anyone's money, nor do they need anyone's pity; what they need is for people to do something about repressive and discriminatory laws, for instance - by calling their elected politicians and pushing them to push for change.

But this is the reality of the society we live in; it is much easier to give money and be done with it. Most people are scared to phone politicians, regardless of how important the reason might be. And we are able to be complacent and apathetic, because this is the only world most of us know: a world of Ipods, high-def television, computers and internet access, and Hollywood blockbuster summer movie releases. For most of us, the biggest crisis is dealing with a broken air-conditioning system, unexpected car repairs, or noisy neighbours.

When I look at campaigns of activism, such as the Campaign to Stop Secret Trials in Canada, the Presumption of Innocence Project, and the War Resisters, to name a few, the majority of the people who start, join, and support these campaigns are those who are directly affected, such as relatives of those who have been victimized. Some of the organizers and key members of these campaigns are outsiders - people from the "mainstream", if you will - who dedicate much of their free time to activism. But these people represent a very small minority of the population. Where are the rest of us?

In the last few weeks, the War Resisters Support Campaign asked people to call Stephane Dion to support the call to allow resisters to stay in Canada. Enough people called that the Liberals were convinced to add their support to the Bloc and NDP, so that the Conservatives were defeated in a vote on the motion. People actually took action, and the result was that they made a real difference. But the campaign was long and hard, and the number of people who actually took part was a miniscule part of the majority of the Canadian population which believes in this cause.

In other countries, hundreds of thousands of people turn out for demonstrations. In Canada, it seems that we'd need a miracle (or some kind of disaster) to generate that kind of reaction.

There is still nowhere else in the world I would rather live. But it is precisely because of that that I want this country to clean up its act in terms of the discrimination and human rights violations - which most Canadians are unaware of. I hope this blog can help educate some people to understand what is wrong. But from that point on, it is up to ordinary Canadians to act.


Tom said...

Wow, thanks Kim. I am amazed how from our casual conversations how much you gleen from them.

Did you watch the documentary yet?

Kim_in_TO said...

Not yet! I have a week off at the end of June, so definitely then if not before.

L-girl said...

the majority of the people who start, join, and support these campaigns are those who are directly affected, such as relatives of those who have been victimized

In my experience, that's what makes new activists - people directly affected by an issue, who, instead of only caring about themselves, see a broader meaning in what's happened.

I have to wonder if the huge demos in Europe are any different? Do "civilians", people totally unaffected by the issue, really march in the streets?

The US also has giant demos like that. You just never see them on TV.

But of course it's true North Americans are complacent. In the US, people are too beaten down by an unresponsive system, too certain that nothing they do will work (and they are often correct).

Thanks for your thoughts on this.

Kim_in_TO said...

The US also has giant demos like that. You just never see them on TV.

Right - curious how reluctant our media is to cover these stories. That's a post for another day.