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In praise of activism that serves without ego

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Noisy public activism isn’t all bad when it doesn’t draw attention primarily to the activist. Photo: Unsplash
Noisy public activism isn’t all bad when it doesn’t draw attention primarily to the activist. Photo: Unsplash

The other day, I happened across a brief summary of the stories of Ida and Louise Cook, a pair of British sisters. They were a secretary and a romance novelist who lived with their parents. And they quietly saved the lives of dozens of European Jews in the 1930’s.

“Quietly” is the operative word. They knew they were plain-looking, dowdy and unremarkable, and they finagled that knowledge into a scheme.

On Friday nights, they would fly into Germany, and then return home by another route before Monday morning, having spent the weekend secretly working with persecuted people trying to flee.

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They would find someone in England to vouch for the person in danger, and secure their legal status as refugees; and they would travel back home wearing the soon-to-be refugees’ furs and jewels, which could later be sold to help them start a new life after they escaped.

They were smugglers, and directly responsible for making the difference between death and survival. But their whole operation depended on not drawing attention to themselves. If they did gain attention, they encouraged people to think of them as harmless and rather silly, the last person you’d suspect of being a radical activist.

Who do you know who is like this? Probably somebody! But you probably don’t know what they’re up to. That’s the point. They’re effective because they don’t draw attention to themselves.

It’s probably very easy, however, to name several people you know who are extremely noisy activists, who make a huge point of taking selfies wearing the colors or flag or scarf of the day, or putting trending frames on their profile pictures, or writing posts or making videos or putting up lawn signs telling the world what side they are on.

It’s very easy to get sucked into some form of this behaviour, especially if we frequently spend time on social media. In some circles, you can actually get lambasted for *not* behaving this way.

Noisy, public activism isn’t always bad. Sometimes it even takes some courage, if the people who do this kind of thing are surrounded by pushy crowds who think otherwise. As I said, when trying to untangle the difference between “speaking the truth even though your voice shakes” and simply engaging in empty virtue signalling:

I have heard from people who identify with the victims—from people raising black kids, for instance—that it gives them great comfort to hear a crowd of people loudly defending them. It would hurt, and be frightening, not to hear it. That in itself is good reason to speak up.

I have also heard from people who’ve said, “I have been too timid to speak up in the past. I’ve let racist jokes slide, and I’ve let insults go unchallenged. Now I see where silence leads, and I’m not going to be silent anymore.” This isn’t posturing; this is conversion of heart. Not virtue signalling, but a sign of actual virtue.

But in general, I’m intensely skeptical of heroism that is deliberately designed to look like heroism, and activism that draws attention primarily to the activist. And I’m skeptical of groups and movements that encourage everybody to speak and act in a certain way, and that condemn anyone who doesn’t speak or act in that exact way.

I keep returning to two ideas that mesh with what we’re taught as Catholics: First is that, if we really want to serve other people, we need to be thinking more about what that person needs than about what we want.  And second is that we’re the most effective when we work with who we are and what we’re already good at.

This doesn’t mean we’re never supposed to act in a way that makes us uncomfortable or afraid! Sometimes this is exactly what’s called for. But we should look first to the strengths and virtues we already have, rather than trying to assume a brand new identity. God made us who we are, and put us where we are, for a reason, and that is where we should start.

The two British sisters knew that, to the harsh and brutal regime that was threatening to take over the world, they looked like harmless fools. And they realised that that was something they could work with. When they knew their treasure-filled purses might be searched by the SS, they planned to say that they never left home without their valuables—and they wholeheartedly played the part of nervous, doddering homebodies who might plausibly do such a thing.

At one point, one of the sisters daringly pinned an enormous diamond pin to her front in order to sneak it out of the country, wearing it openly rather than hiding it, because she realised that everyone who saw her would think she was a silly old girl decking herself out in costume jewellery. What tremendous power there was in knowing how she appeared, and letting it happen, because her ego was the least important thing to worry about right then.

Please do not misunderstand. I’m not railing against people who do good works in public, or who are open and candid about what they believe and what they fight for. It would be pretty disingenuous for an essayist to criticise the clear, public articulation of important ideas!

But I do frequently check myself, and ask what I’m really trying to achieve. When I speak out, is it truly about the thing I say it’s about? Or is mainly or partially about trying to look a certain way? Am I willing to look foolish? Am I willing to be misunderstood? Do I think hard about what effect my behavior is most likely to actually have on the lives of vulnerable people?

Have I taken the time to get to know the people I believe I’m working to help, and do know what their actual needs are? Am I willing to do work that may never be recognised, if it will help someone who needs my help?

I had better be willing! We had all better be. These are strange, dramatic times, and we may very well be called to help each other in unexpected ways, ways that have very little in common with popular forms of activism. It’s good practice to get into the habit of questioning our motives, and asking ourselves what we’re really trying to achieve. Activism without ego can take many forms, but it is essential.

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