The Single Issue Activist

Iam-an-activistI broke one of the cardinal rules of a bar the other day. I discussed politics. The rule is “Never discuss politics or religion at a bar.” The amendment to that rule is “During college football season, football is both politics and religion.”

I came into the discussion late, where a patron was already attacking someone for being a bigot because they didn’t understand the Supreme Court ruling on the Defense Of Marriage Act. This patron was a gay marriage activist and was belittling his seat mate for not understanding the overwhelming importance of the ruling. I knew both patrons, and knew the one getting attacked is not a gay marriage activist, but is a gay marriage supporter.

This is what bothers me about single issue activists. They have a single political issue, and it overwhelms their thinking. Everything is seen through that prism of how it effects their issue, in this case it is gay marriage.

So I couldn’t help but insert myself into this conversation, letting the poor supporter gracefully exit. Only what happened instead was the gathering of an audience.

I told him I didn’t think it quite fair that he assumed that since someone didn’t understand the ruling on DOMA they must be a bigot. Just because someone doesn’t follow every tidbit of news on the issue didn’t make them against the issue.

His response was that everyone should know, and he was tired of having to educate everyone on the topic. I told him I have topics important to me, like Motorcycle Rights, but I don’t assume everyone knows all there is about it.

“But sexuality and gender affect EVERYONE!” He exclaimed.

“Traffic safety effects everyone,” I rebutted.

“Motorcycles don’t cause a disproportionate number of suicides!” He retorted.

“80% of motorcycle accidents are caused by drivers of cars who aren’t paying attention” I explained.

“People don’t threaten you because you ride motorcycles!” He declared.

“People on cell phones and texting while driving threaten my life every day” I reminded him.

“Motorcycles don’t effect my life in any way! They don’t matter!” He screamed.

I took a deep breath and said, “Gay marriage doesn’t effect my life either.” He completely failed to recognize how supportive that statement really is when you get down to the nuts and bolts of the anti gay marriage argument.

He looked at me in horror. “You’re just another homophobic bigot!”

Up till this point I had remained calm. I may have lost my temper a bit. I waggled my finger threateningly into his face and told him to shut up. The phrase may have been more colorful than that.

I sat back down, took a breath and told him he best not interrupt me. I hadn’t expressed my opinion on the issue of gay marriage at all, I explained. You are assuming I’m against it because I place the same importance on my issue as you placed on yours. Fact is, I am a strong supporter of gay marriage, but am not an activist. Then, as politely as I could, I told him the only bigot in this conversation was him.

He started to say something, but I gave him a menacing glance and he sat silent. I explained that all I did was bring up an issue important to me. He was the one trying to belittle my issue as unimportant. Truth is, it may be unimportant to him, but if he’s unwilling to listen to why it is important to me, why on earth should I entertain his arguments on why his issue is important. I went on to tell him the individual he was berating earlier also supports gay marriage, or at least did before you treated him so badly. Why should he support that position at all if since he didn’t “support” it to your satisfaction he wasn’t good enough.

I told this fellow that here is a learning moment that he could have for free. For every point he had about why his issue is important I had an equally important point about my issue. Instead of using my passion to help me understand his, he belittled my issue. That’s what a bigot does.

A rational activist should have and could have explored the similarities between or issues, conceded they are both important. A rational activist shouldn’t be trying to recruit fellow activists, but general supporters. He should want me to vote for people and laws that supported his cause. And he missed a chance to make sure I would do that by ignoring and belittling my cause.

He sat there for a minute and since I stayed silent, he spoke up. “So what would you like to see be done about motorcycle rights?”

I told him I’d like to see the state mandate a motorcycle safety course as a requirement for getting a license to drive a bike. I’d like to see car drivers fully punished under the law for hitting a motorcycle. Claiming they didn’t see the bike is basically an admission they weren’t paying attention.

After telling him that, he sat for a second and admitted those ideas sounded reasonable. I couldn’t resist a final dig. “No more reasonable than everyone should be allowed to marry the person they love.” Then I walked away.

Having a single issue you are passionate about isn’t a bad thing. Passion is good and can help you stay focused. But it shouldn’t blind you into the false belief that everyone should be as passionate about it as you are. If you believe that, then you’ve failed as an activist, no matter what your passion. The goal of activism isn’t more activists it is to incite change. Change is scary enough, and the inertia behind not changing is big enough that an activist should never help the inertia along by alienating potential supporters. Engaging people calmly, rationally and peacefully emotional is far better than screaming at someone without even knowing their position.

I’m not saying that there isn’t times when “in your face” protests and demonstrations are important. But rarely are they important when talking one on one.

And never in a bar. Remember the golden rule of bars. Also, remember that there is always a time to break those rules. I may not have changed his future tactics, but I gave him something to think about.